PITTSBURGH (Feb. 22, 2021) — When Ethan Arnold-Paine, an undergraduate studying chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, arrived virtually at the De Nora Student Pitch Competition and got a look at his competition, it shocked him.
“A lot of them were grad students from really top-tier schools,” he said. “I was surprised to be up against them.”
Still, when it came time to pitch his idea for a new PFAS remediation system, an idea being worked on in David Sanchez’s Sustainable Design Labs at the Swanson School of Engineering, he delivered—and he won.
The competition took place on Nov. 13, 2020 as part of the 9th De Nora Symposium. De Nora, a company that develops and supplies electrode technologies and water disinfection and filtration systems, selected 17 students to pitch their research projects to a panel of expert judges in the field. The competition took the place of the symposium’s in-person poster sessions. Arnold-Paine’s pitch won first place across all categories.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, are an emerging contaminant. They are a class of man-made chemicals valued for their non-stick properties and often used in food packaging, nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and more. Troublingly, the compounds don’t break down naturally and accumulate in soil and water over time; there is evidence that exposure has adverse effects on human health.
Arnold-Paine presented a closed-cycle PFAS remediation system that uses a fast-growing plant—such as bamboo or cattails—to absorb the PFAS from contaminated water as it’s run through a hydroponic system. After a growth cycle, the plants would be harvested and sent to a biomass furnace to be turned into char. The char then could be recycled as a filter bed in the system to absorb even more PFAS from the water, creating little waste. The system was first proposed by Sanchez and Carla Ng, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt, in 2017 and was funded through a Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation Seed Grant.
“The closed loop idea is what the judges were really interested in. The system we designed would create very little waste and wouldn’t use synthetic polymers for adsorption,” said Arnold-Paine. “Also, they were impressed by the system’s modularity. A small system could be used at home or in a business, but it can also be scaled up for use in the field at remediation sites.”
Arnold-Paine’s pitched project is part of the Sanchez Lab’s larger focus on smart riversheds, ways to come up with techniques to track and treat contaminants in different water systems.
“What Ethan pitched was a futuristic proposal to remediate one of these emerging contaminants, PFAS, which has captured a lot of attention,” said Gregg Kotchey, postdoctoral researcher in the Sanchez Lab. “There are more contaminants that we don’t even know about yet. Our work is to detect and remediate them as we discover them.”
As a winner of the competition, Arnold-Paine received a cash prize as well as the opportunity to intern with De Nora.
“For Ethan to be as poised and prepared as he was in the midst of such tough competition is a remarkable achievement,” said David Sanchez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and assistant director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt. “He was an excellent standard-bearer for our lab and the work we’re doing to sustainably clean up the environment, and I look forward to all the ideas and innovations he’ll surely bring to other lab projects and the field.”
Maggie Pavlick, 2/22/2021
Contact: Maggie Pavlick