WPI Boston Project Center: Optimizing Energy Efficiency for Waste Site Remediation Processes
Student Project Helps Reshape Remediation Work Training
Hazardous waste sites can leave behind a dangerous environmental footprint so their cleanup is essential for a healthier planet. But with many sites containing layers of contamination in soil and groundwater, a site cleanup is an intensive process. In fact, as some WPI students recently discovered, the remediation process itself often uses significant energy, but there are ways to make the process more effective and less resource intensive.
As part of their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP)—a project that requires teams to delve into problems that matter to real people—a student team examined how the remediation process can be more energy efficient at WPI’s Boston Project Center.
Team members focused on the groundwater pump and treatment systems in remediation for the project’s sponsor—the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). Aerospace major Christian Anderson; mechanical engineering major Benjamin Duquette; and computer science and electrical and computer engineering double major Zonglin Peng worked with MassDEP to see how they can increase energy-saving processes and motivate a change to those new approaches.
Taking a tour of a waste remediation facility in Holbrook, MA
MassDEP has worked to lower the overall carbon footprint of remediation systems by reducing non-renewable energy consumption and replacing it with greener energy sources; now they needed data to show what was working. “This is something we wanted to do for quite a while, but we didn’t have the resources or the time,” says Thomas Potter, clean energy development coordinator with the policy and program development group of MassDEP’s Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup.
The students were tasked with gathering data to find out how that initiative was being implemented in the field so MassDEP could fine-tune its approach. “Having the dedicated group of WPI students really helped move this along,” says Potter.
To begin the work, the team went right to the people who really know these facilities—the licensed site professionals (LSPs) who carry out the remediation work on behalf of the state. They interviewed the LSPs and then sorted and analyzed data and submittals from various sites to see the actual process at each site and to see if there were potential barriers to taking steps for more energy efficiency.
Conducting a team meeting at the Boston Project Center
Challenged by holes in the data or incomplete database information, the students collaborated to prioritize their tasks and determine how to best meet the sponsor’s goals. Relying on WPI’s approach of theory and practice, critical thinking was a huge help for the students as they began to look at the information. Deciding how to interpret the project results so they are meaningful to an audience became a primary goal, says Peng.
Team members prepared for the project work in Boston during on-campus work the previous term. They interacted with sponsors, established their goals, and got ready to dive into a full-time schedule complete with a round-trip commute to Boston.
The students’ energy and enthusiasm was contagious, says Potter, and especially helpful when trying to make big changes. “Students and the younger generation bring a breath of fresh air to the topic, and they understand it,” he says. “They're excited about it.”
As a team, the students focused on using their science, engineering, and technology skills to make a difference to the larger society. The potential for human impact in efficient hazardous waste cleanup is exciting. “Through this project you can really see the social impacts of how the engineering systems are involved in the communities around them,” says Anderson. “There’s a very good, new approach to engineering that I found very helpful.”
Understanding the delicate mix of the complex remediation process with unpredictable human follow-through helped the students make suggestions to the MassDEP. “The scope of environmental remediation as a process is so vast,” says Anderson. “There are so many factors that go into considering how the environment is affected by pollutants and contaminants, especially in groundwater.”
Participating in waste remediation plant tour as part of the project field work.
The project opened new doors and new ideas for the students and the sponsor. “One of the most valuable things I took from this project experience was being able to take risks in an environment that allowed me to do so,” says Duquette, noting the change in routine offered a glimpse of the future. “With this project, I got to experience what it's like to actually commute and have a full work day outside of my normal schedule.”
As work progressed, the team honed in on the sponsor’s needs. “We identified all of the nuances that are involved with talking to site managers and dealing with groundwater remediation systems,” says Anderson. “We really identified the process of improving the efficiency of these systems, or at least recommending improvements. I think we definitely had a big impact with our sponsor.”
Presenting final project recommendations to the sponsor at the MassDEP office
The depth of the research and data gathering gave the MassDEP team a needed overview of their methods and highlighted where there were gaps in information, Potter says. “I learned a lot about our systems and records,” he says, noting the team’s final results provide a solid foundation that future teams will use to continue the work.
From interviews with LSPs, the students explained the incentives that would make remediation changes more easily adaptable for their teams and created a factsheet that can be provided to each site. They also broke down the groundwater sites statewide to summarize energy efficient suggestions, in both use and potential, and in site-specific options that could be useful.
Potter says the students created new data. “I was excited to say, ‘You’re doing it for the first time. This is something entirely new, and whatever you’re going to create is going to be what there is.’”
He is looking forward to working with WPI teams in the future and watching as they realize the potential of their work. “It really is setting the pace for the rest of the nation engaging in this topic,” he says, “and the students engaged in this topic are really going to be leading this field.”