THE WOODLANDS, Texas -- The students at Lone Star College-Montgomery are putting a lot of energy into finding low-energy solutions for what hopes to be the first-ever environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable master-planned community in the U.S.
Through a recent partnership with Aperion, a property development company based in Arizona, students in LSC-Montgomery’s Biotechnology Institute are using algae to find biological processes for water treatment, waste remediation, and energy conservation that will directly impact Rio West, a developing community outside of Albuquerque, N.M.
“Our students are part of cutting-edge research and training that reflect brand new sustainable technologies being implemented around the world,” said Danny Kainer, director of the biotechnology institute at LSC-Montgomery. “This is a chance to diversify our institute and teach in the same manner that scientists conduct science, which is through hands-on research.”
The hopes of the community’s developer, David Maniatis, and its chief technology expert, George King, is to ensure the energy produced by the community is more than the energy consumed by the inhabitants, including electricity, materials, and the 65 million acre-feet of water in a newly-discovered aquifer beneath the site. (To put that into perspective, one acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons.)
While finding water in the middle of the desert seems like a simple way to sustain the community, the aquifer water is unsuitable for consumption and unusable for industries.
That’s where LSC-Montgomery students come into play.
Stepping out the classroom and into the lab, a group of students and faculty are developing new techniques for desalinization of the water and remediation of the waste produced.
“We’re taking the water (from the aquifer) and adding certain strains of algae to see which will survive and which will remediate the water,” said Tammie Porter, who after receiving her associate degree in biotechnology last August, is back at LSC-Montgomery working on courses to transfer to M.D.Anderson School of Health Professions.
“Already, we’ve seen results.”
Porter, along with other students, has been working since last fall to find strains of algae that can survive in and remediate the brackish aquifer water. As Kainer explained, even the byproducts of the algal growth can provide additional revenue streams and potentially, make the entire project sustainable.
“To have algae already growing in the lab is great news,” said King, who has more than 35 years of experience in energy, power, water, and waste management. “The living organisms (that students have placed in that water) have surprised us by their ability to survive in that environment. Nature has been doing this, and we’re just trying to figure out how and replicate it. Hopefully, we’ll implement an alternative to chemical remediation.”
To provide the students the equipment and resources needed to complete their analysis, Aperion has invested $82,000 in LSC-Montgomery’s biotechnology program.
“This investment is a catalyst to get all portions of this program—algae, biodiesel, fuel cell, and now water remediation, revamped and increased,” said Kainer.
The donation will allow the college to revamp its existing greenhouse to serve as a biorefinery and aqua-culture research center; to make specialized equipment usable, such as a scanning electron microscope donated by Rice University; and to purchase an infrared spectrometer and an automated cell counter, two analytical instruments in the industry that will aid the students in monitoring algal growth patterns.
Additionally, the donation will help further develop the algae photobioreactor (PBR) project initiated in 2010 when the National Algae Association (NAA) partnered with LSC-Montgomery to host the first commercial-scale, closed-loop PBR in the greater Houston area. Housed on campus, this system converts pond scum into biofuel and has provided students with research opportunities, on-site internships, and partnerships with energy industry professionals.
“Scientific research doesn’t normally happen at the community college level, but it happens here,” said Kainer.
Students, interns, and even local high school students are involved in project, including Michelle Coleman, who received her associate degree in biotechnology from LSC-Montgomery last August. Coleman has enjoyed the research so much that she has continued working with the biotechnology institute on a volunteer basis.
“This algae project really gave me a focus, and now this lab is my home-away-from-home,” said Coleman, who became more interested in biotechnology when she began to appreciate the diversity of the field. “I’ve had the chance to start on the ground floor of some amazing research, and I won’t get this opportunity anywhere else.”
Coleman and the other students at LSC-Montgomery are just building the foundation of a project in an ever-growing industry, where according to Kainer, the sky is the limit.
“These technologies and the discovery process accelerate the quest for carbon management in the food, fuel, and fiber industries,” said Kainer. “The management and remediation of organic waste streams is an absolute necessity for any community, region, or nation that aims to be truly sustainable.”
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