Weathering the storm(water)

Katie Bartels, a sophomore in environmental engineering, conducts her experiment on the green roof on top of Emerson Electric Co. Hall.

Katie Bartels, a sophomore in environmental engineering, conducts her experiment on the green roof on top of Emerson Electric Co. Hall. Photo by Sam O’Keefe

For Katherine Bartels, environmentalism is all about balance. “It is finding the best solution for humans and the environment without sacrificing one for the other,” she says.

Bartels follows this mantra in her current research project. She studies the volume and quality of stormwater saved from runoff by the green roof on top of Missouri S&T’s Emerson Electric Co. Hall.

The green roof features 16,000 plants arranged in the shape of a shamrock. Most of the plants growing on the roof are a variety of sedum and all were chosen for their ability to thrive in direct sun and wind with limited water. The roof is divided into three sections, each covered with different roofing materials, which allow S&T researchers to compare the water runoff control, water quality and thermal properties of each material.

Bartels, a sophomore in environmental engineering from Independence, Missouri, started the experiment last summer as part of the Opportunities for Undergraduate Research Experiences (OURE) program, and plans to continue her research until she graduates. Joel Burken, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering and director of the Environmental Research Center for Emerging Contaminants, directs the research.

Bartels says that although the green roof absorbs a significant amount of stormwater, the stormwater that is washed out has much higher concentrations of nitrogen and phosphate than a typical black roof. When excessive nitrogen and phosphorous levels end up in local waterways, undesirable side effects such as algae blooms can occur. When algae die, they decompose. The decomposition consumes oxygen, and with less oxygen, naturally occurring aquatic plants, fish, crustaceans and other organisms can die. Algae blooms also produce algal toxins that directly pollute the source of drinking water intake.

So now, Bartels is researching how much ground soil is necessary on a green roof to fully absorb the stormwater and minimize the amount of nutrients in the runoff. She is also studying the cooling effect that green roofs have on urban “heat islands.” An urban heat island is a city or metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities. That project was initiated by Madison Gibler, a graduate student who plans to complete her master’s degree in May.

“What our research does is maximize the water source potential to cool the urban heat islands, but minimize the amount of nutrients in the runoff,” Bartels says.

Once a month, Bartels tests the rainwater on the green roof. She uses small plots of soil to trap the stormwater, and then filters it through plastic tubes to paint buckets where the runoff can be extracted and tested for nitrogen and phosphate. Some of the plots feature sedum plants. Others are just covered with rocks and soil. By testing varying plots, Bartels can get an idea of the impact different plants and soils have on the stormwater.

She presented her research to the state’s top legislators in Jefferson City on March 10 as part of the annual Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.

Bartels was also just accepted into the Aaron and Zelda Greenberg Scholars Program in the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department, in which students work with faculty advisors to develop a program of independent research study that will weave through both bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Bartels says she has always known that she wanted to channel her love of science into an environmentally focused career.

“I remember in elementary school reading about the polar ice caps melting. Then I saw a picture of a polar bear swimming in the ocean and my heart broke,” she says. “That’s when I knew I wanted to do anything I could to help the cause. When you’re passionate about something, you develop skills you might not have had.”

Bartels’ passion for developing clean water took root in high school, where she first learned about diverting stormwater runoff using rain gardens and green roofs in her environmental science class.

Bartels says her teacher used a low-lying recreation field with poor drainage as an example.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we build one?’” says Bartels.

Her teacher agreed, and the class built the school’s first-ever rain garden.

“It’s still there,” Bartels says. “And it’s a good feeling to say that.”

Bartels is treasurer of Missouri S&T’s Water Environment Federation (WEF) student chapter.

The student organization is heavily involved in environmental cleanups, and does float trip and sinkhole trash pickups at least once a year. The organization also monitors the water quality of Beaver Creek in southern Phelps County for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, taking water quality samples twice a year, and makes presentations at local primary schools.

Bartels hopes to work for the Environmental Protection Agency some day, maybe testing and improving water quality.

By Greg Katski

Taking the Earth’s temperature

Since installing 144 geothermal wells on campus over the past two years, Dr. Curt Elmore, professor of geological engineering, has led a couple of ongoing geothermal research projects.

Since installing 144 geothermal wells on campus over the past two years, Dr. Curt Elmore (center), professor of geological engineering, has led two ongoing geothermal research projects. Photo by Sam O’Keefe

On the surface, it looks like nothing more than a turf-covered soccer field. But the ground beneath Missouri University of Science and Technology’s intramural field houses a complex system of 144 wells, each one 400 feet deep, that supply the campus’s Gale Bullman Building with heating and cooling using geothermal energy.

That well field is also home to two ongoing geothermal research projects led by Dr. Curt Elmore, professor of geological engineering at Missouri S&T. The first project is designed to monitor possible long-term changes in the Earth’s temperature that could result from the operation of a large-scale geothermal system.

With funding from the geological engineering program and in partnership with the physical facilities department, Elmore and his team outfitted one of the wells in the center of Missouri S&T’s intramural field with eight pairs of thermocouples placed every 50 feet to measure temperature at various levels throughout the 400-foot well.

Wires connect the sensors to a small flush mount vault that looks like a water meter you might find in your yard. Nearly every day, Charlie Smith and Jordan Thompson – two students working with Elmore on the project – connect equipment to read the temperature measurements that the sensors recorded. An additional well, drilled 20 feet from the geothermal well field, provides baseline readings for comparison. Thompson, a junior in geological engineering, is working on the project as part of the Opportunities for Undergraduate Research Experiences program (OURE).

Before the geothermal system went live, the researchers collected about six weeks of background temperature data. Once the system was operational, they began to notice a change in the ground temperature.

“We observed that the average temperature did increase over the course of the summer as energy from the building was transferred to the subsurface,” says Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in geological engineering. “We are now observing the cooling of the subsurface as energy is being removed to assist in the heating of the building. We would like to record data during several full heating and cooling cycles to fully see any long-term overall warming or cooling trends.”

Over time, changes in ground temperature could effect the performance of a geothermal energy system, Elmore says.

“A ground source geothermal system works by taking heat from the air and sending it into the ground,” Elmore says. “Or we take heat from the ground and send it into the air. Here, cooling is predominant. If the ground is warmer, it can’t take on as much heat and that could effect the performance of the geothermal system,” he says. “Let’s say you want to chill a bottle of Coke, for example, and you’re used to putting it in cold water for 10 minutes. If your water gets warmer, it will take longer to cool your Coke. If it’s really cold, it will cool faster.”

An expert in groundwater remediation, Elmore is also working on a project to see if geothermal energy could be used in place of electricity to treat water as a part of an innovative desalination process.

“Geothermal energy has the potential to heat and cool water during the treatment process, thus reducing the amount of water wasted and reducing the amount of energy required to treat the water,” Elmore says.

To pilot the project, Elmore is designing a small desalination system that will fit on a utility trailer towed behind a pickup truck.

Elmore is working on the project with Dr. Mostafa Elsharquawy from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia. They hope to build a water treatment facility that uses geothermal energy.

“Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars every year changing sea water into drinking water,” Elmore says. “Geothermal energy could provide a much more cost-effective treatment system.”

Missouri S&T’s geothermal energy system – one of the most comprehensive in the nation – provides heating and cooling to 17 buildings on campus and chilled water to the majority of campus buildings. Completion of the system allowed S&T to decommission its World War II-era power plant last spring. The system is expected to cut energy usage by 50 percent and reduce the university’s carbon footprint by 25,000 metric tons per year.

By Mary Helen Stoltz

A ‘down-to-earth’ scholar

Krista Rybacki is a graduate student in geochemistry and environmental geology  from Nashville, Ill. Photo by B.A. Rupert.

Krista Rybacki is a graduate student in geochemistry and environmental geology from Nashville, Ill. Photo by B.A. Rupert.

Krista Rybacki was an exceptional student in high school and continued the tradition with a 4.0 GPA in her undergraduate years as a geology and geophysics major. Now, as a graduate student in geochemistry and environmental geology and a Chancellor’s Fellow, she is conducting research on soil contamination near a lead recycling smelter for her master’s thesis.

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