Spending a summer finding ways to make toilet water reusable and trying to extract urine from wastewater might not sound glamorous.
But the results of the work two UC Merced students are doing though a prestigious research partnership could be very important to a state facing a severe drought, as well as for the future of water security.
Rudy Maltos, 23, a senior from Bakersfield, and Maritza Flores-Marquez, 21, a senior from Tulare, both environmental engineering majors, were two of 16 students selected for Re-inventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt)'s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.
ReNUWIt is a partnership between UC Berkeley, the Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico State University and Stanford University.
Flores-Marquez is using ion-exchange methods to recover ammonium from urine in wastewater to potentially make fertilizers, and Maltos is using forward osmosis to treat wastewater for reuse.
“This research will help water remediation become a practical exercise throughout the country, saving countless gallons of water,” Maltos said.
Toilets account for 28 to 40 percent of all indoor water use, according to a 2013 report for the California Energy Commission.
Flores-Marquez’s project would not only recover useful nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to make fertilizers, the removal would eliminate the need for such a step at wastewater treatment plants.
Her research interests include water quality, sanitation, policy and management, so ReNUWIt, she said, seemed like a perfect fit for her.
“Some of the research options included tailored water, energy-positive wastewater treatment, nutrient recovery from wastewater, managed aquifer recharge, stream restoration, stormwater harvesting and urban planning,” Flores-Marquez said. “I plan on attending graduate school in California to pursue a master’s in environmental engineering or water-resource engineering, so I can work on California’s water issues.”
Maltos chose this REU program because of the challenges his home state is facing.
“California has been in a major drought for three years and the Central Valley must look for new ways to conserve water for agricultural and municipal purposes,” he said. “With experience in water remediation, I could be an effective volunteer in places with severe water scarcity.”
He’s also planning on earning his master’s with an emphasis in water quality, but said until graduate school starts, he’d like to work or volunteer in South America.
REU programs, many of which are supported by the National Science Foundation, immerse students in research for nine weeks each summer. Students from all over the country apply to different REU programs, including the ones at UC Merced.
The students stay on different campuses and meet up at a retreat at Stanford. Each said they are connecting with other students from around the country, making friends and finding potential colleagues for future projects.
“Working at the Berkeley Water Center this summer has been great,” Flores-Marquez said. “I have been able to meet several graduate students and learn about their research. While working on my project I was also able to help another graduate student with their research on sunlight inactivation of pathogens on wetlands. The grad students at Berkeley are open and willing to share their experiences and advice for grad school with me.”
Maltos is staying at the Colorado School of Mines for his research, and shares a suite with other students.
“I've made lots of friends and have met lots of graduate students and professors I would like to work with,” he said.
Having studied geochemistry and environmental chemistry with UC Merced Professor Peggy O’Day and taken part in undergraduate research, both agreed they were well prepared for their REU. They will return for their final years at UC Merced with even more lab experience and a thorough understanding of graduate programs and the challenges they’ll face.
“Our undergraduates benefit from our nontraditional structure that crosses between engineering and science,” O’Day said. “They learn to tackle hard problems by applying basic principles they learn in class to real problems related to environmental sustainability. They are competitive for top REU programs, and will be ready to succeed in graduate schools and professionally. “
Maltos and Flores-Marquez encouraged all UC Merced students to apply to REU programs for the experience and the head start on graduate school, both by visiting other campuses and by making connections with others.
“Start looking early,” Maltos said. “Find your passion and look for programs that match your desires.”