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EPA's Sustainable Design Competition Winner - Columbia University

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MUSIC: “Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Welcome to EPA’s “Science Works,” a podcast about how the EPA uses science to meet its mission to protect your health and environment. From “Science Works” at EPA, I’m Véronique LaCapra.

In this podcast, we’ll meet one of the winning teams from this year’s P3 student design competition. P3 stands for people, prosperity and the planet, and students from any U.S. college or university can participate. EPA sponsors the competition to challenge students to work together in interdisciplinary teams, to design and build sustainable technologies that improve quality of life, promote economic development, and protect the environment.

This team from Columbia University in New York developed what they call a multifunction platform, or MFP, for use by a rural community in Soroti, Uganda. The MFP is a type of engine, as student Janelle Heslop explains.

HESLOP: “What this engine usually runs on, is diesel. But the interesting part of our program is that we want to modify this engine so that it can run on a plant that is locally grown, known as jatropha. And this jatropha plant, from the seed you can extract oil, and so what we want to do is run this engine that usually runs on diesel, on jatropha oil.”

LACAPRA: But jatropha oil is much thicker – more viscous – than diesel.

HESLOP: “Basically what we had to do is find a way to lower the viscosity of jatropha oil […]. And what we did is we modified a plug that was in the engine so that it would preheat the jatropha oil […] to get it to a viscosity that’s comparable to diesel.”

LACAPRA: Team member Jennifer Wang sees several advantages to running the MFPs on jatropha oil. For one thing, she says, Ugandan farmers are already growing jatropha and know how to extract oil from its seeds. The jatropha plant is hardy, and doesn’t need much water. And, says Wang, using jatropha oil as fuel in the MFPs instead of diesel will create much less air pollution.

WANG: “Running jatropha in these engines is really great for the environment. We ran some tests […] and found that it runs a lot cleaner than traditional diesel.”

LACAPRA: Wang says Ugandans could use the MFPs to provide power for electricity generation, agricultural processing, or water supply systems. As part of the first phase of their project, the team worked with a Ugandan non-governmental organization called Pilgrim, and with mechanical engineering students at Makerere University in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to build and install an MFP at a secondary school in Soroti.

I caught up with the Columbia University students again at the P3 awards ceremony, where EPA Acting Science Advisor Kevin Teichman announced the winning teams:

TEICHMAN: “The first award winner comes from Columbia University, for Multifunction Energy Platform Pilot. [APPLAUSE]

LACAPRA: I asked Janelle Heslop how it felt to have won.

HESLOP: “It’s incredibly exciting. It really validates our project and makes us feel really good that other people think that what we’re doing is as great as what we think we’re doing… [LAUGHS] It’s exciting, and it’s also exciting to move forward with our project with funding, and to really see it come to fruition the way we want it to.”

LACAPRA: In the next phase of their project, the Columbia University team plans to continue to study the viability of jatropha as a biofuel, and to work with their partners in Uganda to install two more multifunction platforms.

You can learn more about their project on our website, at epa.gov/P3.

MUSIC: "Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Thanks for listening to “Science Works,” a podcast series produced by EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Please check back again soon for our next program, at epa.gov/ncer.

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