A team of Cal Poly environmental engineering students took home the $2,500 Intel Environmental Innovation Award for using ion-exchange resins to filter copper out of roof runoff water at the 27th annual International Environmental Design Contest.

New Mexico State University and the Western Engineering & Research Corporation (WERC) hosted a consortium for environmental education and technology development April 5 to 7 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The consortium develops four tasks each year that university teams create solutions for and present to a panel of experts.

The idea for this particular task originated at the Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center in Ventura. Owning many historic buildings with aging copper roofs, the Navy needed a better way to keep copper pollutants out of storm water runoff. Their previous solution, which involved copper waste collecting in sand, was not sustainable, took up a lot of space and produced massive amounts of hazardous waste.

The team, led by environmental engineering sophomore Andrew Ledezma, found that ion exchange resin — usually used to soften water — also worked to remove copper particles from storm water. Even better, the filter they designed to contain the resin could be installed on existing gutters. This provided a cost-saving alternative that produces a fraction of the copper hazardous waste and can be reused overtime.

“What helped us win was the practicality and usefulness of our design,” Ledezma said.

The Navy, which partially funded the project, is looking into existing patents to see if using the student-developed product is possible.

Two additional Cal Poly teams competed in the contest. One group tackled challenges involving passive solar distillation of acid rock drainage waters, and the other examined construction of remotely operated weather stations that measure renewable energy potential.

Cal Poly has participated in the competition since 2005 under the direction of faculty advisor Tracy Thatcher.

Environmental engineering senior and student advisor Nicholas Hardy said what sets the university apart is its commitment to letting undergraduate students take the lead.

“Most of our team is made up of sophomores and juniors,” Hardy said. “I think everyone else at the competition is a grad student or a graduating senior. It’s pretty incredible that we did as well as we did with our young team.”

On winning the Intel Innovation Award, Hardy said the team was surprised but honored.

“You get there and it is pretty intimidating standing next to schools with huge budgets,” Hardy said. “To show up with [a] rag-tag team and win is pretty amazing.”

WERC is one of three contests the Society of Environmental Engineers competes in annually. WERC is different in that students work all year crafting their projects and preparing to present to the panel of experts in New Mexico.

“We work for an entire year, which brings in very talented and dedicated students,” student advisor and environmental engineering senior Andrew Kandea said. “Working for three quarters on their projects, I think they get a lot more out of it.”

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