From Green Right Now Reports

College students looking for ways to make the world more sustainable found ways to use manure, coal byproducts, rice hulls and even spinach to save energy or create needed products from waste materials.

Vanderbilt students with their spinach-powered solar cell. (Photo: Vanderbilt University)

Several of these innovators were among the  15 college teams that shared a $1 million in grants, awarded as prize money for the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) contest.

The winners of the 8th Annual National Sustainable Design Expo, chosen from among 45 team entrants with about 300 members, were showcased at the National Mall in Washington.

Spinach, you say?

A team from Vanderbilt University came up with that one. The students found that a protein from spinach could be substituted for rare metals in a solar panel, creating a “bio-hybrid” panel that was more affordable and doubly renewable and did indeed produce electricity.

Each P3 award-winning team will receive a grant of up to $90,000 to further develop their design and make it workable in the real world, according to the EPA, which notes that past P3 award winners have started successful businesses based on their technology breakthroughs. A panel of science experts helped EPA select this year’s winners, which were announced this week.

Winners of the 2012 awards include:

  • Appalachian State University for developing an artificial wetland suitable for recycling of grey water from small businesses for immediate reuse.
  • Butte College for developing structural insulated panels for building construction using rice hulls, an abundant agricultural waste, as the primary raw material.
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for designing a foldable solar power water purification system that can fit into a backpack for easy transport for use after a disaster affecting drinking ether supply.
  • Gonzaga University for developing a simple ventilation system for kitchens in rural dwellings using electrical power generated from thermoelectric cells driven by waste heat from cooking fires.
  • Oregon State University for raising awareness of pollution associated with the production and use of plastic mulch by farmers and testing alternative biodegradable mulch material.
  • Princeton University for developing, testing and deploying an electricity generation system that can be transported in a standard shipping container and rapidly set up in rural communities and post-disaster areas.
  • Santa Clara University for developing a fuel cell capable of continuous sustainable energy supply to meet energy demands in rural communities in developing nations lacking reliable energy grids.
  • Southern Illinois University – Carbondale for developing methods to extract (recycle) metals from Coal Combustion Byproducts (CCB) to reduce mining and to produce a concrete with reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
  • SUNY College of Environmental Science and Engineering for studying ways to recover struvite, a slow release fertilizer, from digested animal manures and assesses its marketability.
  • Texas State University – San Marcos for converting rice husks, a byproducts of agriculture, into a starter material called lignocellulose for producing fabrics, biofuel and silica nanoparticles.
  • University of California – Riverside for designing a solar collector to heat ambient air for use in home appliances, such as clothes dryers and space heaters, to reduce home energy consumption.
  • University of Cincinnati for developing a pilot scale system to convert trap grease from restaurants, a waste set to landfill, to renewable biodiesel.
  • University of Connecticut for investigating ways to use local industrial byproducts such as steal slag and lime kilm dust to control erosion and to stabilize roads in Nicaragua.
  • University of Oklahoma – Norman for design, field-test, construct, instrument, analyze and document a habitat for humanity house built of compresses earth blocks (CEB).
  • Vanderbilt University for developing a biohyrid solar panel that substitutes a protein from spinach for rare metals (mined) and is capable of producing electricity.

Honorable Mention winners were:

  • Christian Brothers University for developing technologies to improve energy efficiency in the building envelope of residencies in Memphis, Tennessee, that focus on the thermal properties of materials, fire safety, material stability and cost.
  • Clarkson University for studying the feasibility of using waste heat and leachate from a solid waste management facility for energy to produce biodiesel from algae.
  • Drexel University for designing a pilot-scale reactor for local landfill that uses algae to produce biofuels from landfill leachate and gas.
  • Purdue University for designing, building and installing affordable ram pumps in Haiti to improve the availability of water for its citizens.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology for designing a hydrofoil system that harvests energy from a river while minimizing the harmful effects that dams create for river flow and sediments.
  • Santa Clara University for developing a high efficiency solar absorber/exchanger that can bring low cost energy to urbanites who have limited space for solar collectors.
  • Southern Illinois University -Edwardsville for evaluating the use of selenium-polluted plant waste materials harvested from phytoremediation sites to produce selenium-enriched edible mushrooms.
  • University of Texas at Austin for designing, constructing and testing vermicomposting (composting with worms) bins to improve public health in the Dominican Republic by reducing water contamination from organic waste.
  • University of California – Davis for designing and monitoring an affordable green roof technology that uses the shading from plant to cool roof surfaces and reduce peak electricity demand by up to 75 percent.
  • Missouri University of Science and Technology for developing a control system that opens and closes windows to maximize natural ventilation and save energy by sensing differencing in outdoor and indoor climate conditions.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for creating and implementing a point-of-view disinfectant for drinking water that is cheap, non-toxic and effective in reducing waterborne illness in developing nations.

The National Sustainable Design Expo also featured exhibits by nonprofit organizations, government and state agencies. This year’s expo was co-sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Engineers without Borders-USA, Engineering for Change and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

In addition to recognition by the EPA, the U.S. Army recognized three teams for projects that fit the Army’s NetZero initiative. Those were: The team from University of Texas at Austin for achieving Zero Waste with their use of vermicomposting to reduce solid waste; Embry Riddle Aeronautical University for a lightweight solar powered battery backup water purification system that reflects the Army’s Zero Water efforts and University of California at Davis for its cool roofs project promoting Zero Energy.

The Paladin Capital Group recognized Vanderbilt University’s spinach to solar project with a “Marketplace Innovation Award.