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EPA administrator visits USF, observes water sustainability research


Approximately 40 percent of the world lacks adequate amounts of clean drinking water, and researchers at USF have been developing methods for improving the quality and availability of this necessary resource.

Nancy Stoner, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) acting assistant administrator for water, visited USF’s Tampa and Lakeland campuses on Wednesday to tour three laboratories where new technologies in water sustainability are being developed.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is encourage the development of new technologies that solves real world problems,” Stoner said. “And that’s what they’re doing here at the University of South Florida.”

In Tampa, Stoner toured the labs of Daniel Yeh and Daniel Lim.

Yeh, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, showed a process by which wastewater can be converted into clean drinking water.

“Wastewater. The first thing I’m going to say is, it’s not anything pleasant,” he said. “The fact is it has carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in it, and we can either view those as a problem, or we can view them as an opportunity.”

Lim, a professor in the department of cellular biology, microbiology and molecular biology, showed his lab’s work on detecting water pathogens. His research has led to the creation of a sensor that is able to detect low levels of E. Coli in water sources.

The effect of the sensor’s detection capability has led to the ability to locate E. Coli in places such as recreational areas and vegetable producing plants.

Right after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Lim said he began receiving phone calls from utility companies in New York, who asked him what he could do to protect the city’s drinking water supply from a bioterrorism attack.

“As we began to look at all the ways to identify bacteria, especially in drinking water, we came to a conclusion,” Lim said. “All these detection devices were very fancy. They were being used by various agencies, and they still required a couple days to identify bacteria.”

Lim’s team looked at a much larger sample than before, moving from 100 milliliters to 100 liters. The team has also made its detection instruments much more sensitive, increasing their levels of detection to be able to reach bacteria.

“By doing that, we’ve been able to detect things in water, and in various other things including food, in hours rather than days,” Lim said. “And that made a significant difference.”

At the Lakeland campus, Stoner visited the Renewable Fuels Laboratory, which specializes in algae cultivation and biomass conversion.

The lab works to grow fuel and algae while reducing water and energy consumption, as well as improve biomass conversion technologies.

The EPA Office of Water also released a blueprint Wednesday afternoon that highlights the office’s new plans to “advance and promote technology innovation across various water programs” and partner with other agencies on technology innovation.

“There’s all kinds of exciting things being done in the laboratories (at USF),” Stoner said. “(The university) is really ready to be scaled up and tried out at utilities and others around the area … I think there’s really good things happening in the lab, and it’s time to move it out and start using these technologies to see how they work.”