Research Spotlight: Analytical Chemistry Out of the Lab and Into the WaterHub

Students in their laboratory safety gear outside the WaterHub.
Students in their laboratory safety gear outside the WaterHub.

By: Laura Briggs (EC ’19)

Sometimes, being in an academic lab setting can feel a bit pointless. Instructors and TAs are there to help you every step of the way, procedures are laid out for you step-by-step, and everyone pretty much knows what the “right” result should be. I understand that this method helps you learn techniques and reinforce concepts, but it definitely isn’t what I’ve experienced in a real research setting.

Dr. Jeremy Weaver’s analytical chemistry lab has been a fun and fulfilling change of scenery from step-by-step lab work. Our class visited the WaterHub with sample collection bottles and got a hands-on look at the real science that goes on there (I talk more about the WaterHub experience here). Then, we took the samples back into the lab to do some real research.

Dr. Weaver famously says that analytical chemistry is the class where data accuracy and precision matter the most. But for the WaterHub project, he took a more open-ended approach. He didn’t give us a procedure to follow; instead, we spent a week scouring the Internet and the scientific literature to figure out what to do. And when we asked if a certain procedure would work, Dr. Weaver encouraged us to go for it, give it a shot, and see what happened.

Using the techniques we learned in lab, including gas chromatography, titrations, and spectrophotometry, we determined (somewhat successfully) the phosphate and aluminum concentrations of the water, along with “water hardness” – a fancy term for the concentrations of calcium, magnesium, and a few other ions in a water sample. These are values that water quality testers would measure during a routine check of water quality.

Of course, without a surefire procedure to follow, it took a couple of tries to work out the kinks. My portion of the project was to determine the phosphate concentration of the WaterHub samples using UV/Vis spectrometry. The concept behind this technique is simple – you add an agent to your sample that creates a color change, and the degree to which the color appears corresponds to the concentration of the sample. The first time I added my coloring agent to each sample, absolutely nothing happened – even when I knew that there was a ton of phosphate in the sample!

The process of research, as we learned, is full of troubleshooting and setbacks. But eventually, I found the amount of phosphate in the WaterHub water! Boy, did I feel accomplished because I found the procedure and performed the experiments myself. Even in an academic lab setting, it is possible to conduct real research, answer real questions, and engage with the Emory community on a larger level. Dr. Weaver’s WaterHub project brought the esoteric techniques of quantitative analytical chemistry and gave them new life through a real-life application.

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Laura BriggsLaura Briggs is a sophomore majoring in chemistry and dance. Laura is a Woodruff Scholar and the Vice President of the Emory Swing Dance Club. She is also a member of the Emory Dance Company and hosts a weekly, science-themed radio show. Laura is a research assistant in the Weinert lab, where she studies really cool bacteria that attack potatoes. Laura plans to pursue either a Ph.D. in biochemistry or a master’s in science writing.

To learn more about the WaterHub, check out this link from Campus Services!

http://www.campserv.emory.edu/fm/energy_utilities/water-hub/

First Person: Discovering the WaterHub at Emory

Analytical chemistry students listen to a tour guide at the WaterHub at Emory.
Analytical chemistry students listen to a tour guide in the front hall of the WaterHub at Emory.

By: Laura Briggs (EC ’19)

I didn’t know that the WaterHub existed until this semester, which is a shame because it’s right in my backyard. From my dorm room at 15 Eagle Row, I can see the greenhouse and the mysterious metal trapdoors embedded in the grassy area near Peavine Creek Drive. But it wasn’t until my analytical chemistry lab trekked across campus, collection bottles and safety goggles in hand, that I learned how awesome the WaterHub really is.

One of the first things you see when you enter the WaterHub is a banana tree, happily flourishing among the greenery in the heat and humidity. Besides providing me with a bit of joy, the tree is working full-time for a greater cause. Its roots are the centerpiece of a hydroponic reactor beneath the greenhouse that harnesses the natural design of plants to provide efficient and stable water treatment.

As our tour guide explained to the class, the WaterHub recycles up to 400,000 gallons of water every day, meeting almost 40% of Emory’s total water needs. Don’t worry, though- our guide reassured us that repurposed sewage is not coming out of the water fountains. Instead, the recycled water heats and cools buildings and helps flush toilets in some of Emory’s dorms.

How does this Cinderella transformation occur? The treatment process begins with a series of moving bed bioreactors to settle out and digest the – um – solid components of sewage. These large tanks contain a floating plastic netting system where bacteria can settle and grow into compact communities called biofilms.

Different kinds of bacteria proliferate in different bioreactors, and the WaterHub puts each of them to work cleaning various components of the wastewater. Oxygen levels control the types of bacteria that flourish. One bioreactor is completely anaerobic, encouraging the growth of bacteria that can “denitrify” the water, reducing dangerous nitrates into harmless nitrogen gas. Other bioreactors have different oxygen conditions, and the microbes that grow there perform other functions.

The next step in the process also relies on nature; a vast network of plant roots dips down into a series of hydroponic reactors, providing maximum surface area for more junk-eating microbes to inhabit. Alongside the plants, there’s also an artificial system of textile webbing to provide additional filtration.

At this point in the treatment system, the water is pretty clear, and almost all contaminants have been removed. Still, the process isn’t over. Water passes through a clarifier and a filter, removing any remaining solids, nutrients, and color from the water. Finally, any straggling biological contaminants are zapped away with a combination of chlorine and ultraviolet (UV) light. Our class sampled this fully-repurposed water to test for various contents (Here is my blog post exploring this process in-depth!)

The WaterHub – once a mystery to me – is a brilliant marriage of sustainability, engineering, chemistry, and biology right on Peavine Creek Drive! Thanks to Dr. Weaver’s analytical chemistry lab course, I can now look out my dorm room window and appreciate the source of the water that heats the building on these cold winter nights – and the beautifully-evolved natural processes that keep it clean.

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Laura BriggsLaura Briggs is a sophomore majoring in chemistry and dance. Laura is a Woodruff Scholar and the Vice President of the Emory Swing Dance Club. She is also a member of the Emory Dance Company and hosts a weekly, science-themed radio show. Laura is a research assistant in the Weinert lab, where she studies really cool bacteria that attack potatoes. Laura plans to pursue either a Ph.D. in biochemistry or a master’s in science writing.

To learn more about the WaterHub, check out this link from Campus Services!

http://www.campserv.emory.edu/fm/energy_utilities/water-hub/

Chemistry and the Atlanta Science Festival

Undergraduate Chris Hernandez. Photo by Emory Photo/Video.
Undergraduate Chris Hernandez. Photo by Emory Photo/Video.

ChEmory, Emory’s undergraduate ACS club, presented demos at the 2014 Atlanta Science Festival. The demos were the featured entertainment during intermission of the “Science at Emory: The Lab Changing the World” even. At the same event, Susanna Widicus Weaver gave a public talk titled “Chemical Complexity in the Universe” to an audience of over 200. Over 40 audience members visited the department for lab tours following the event. Thanks to event organizers Ilya Nemenman (Physics), David Lynn, Simon Blakey, and graduate student Darcie Cook.

ChEmory demos were again featured at the Exploration Expo held downtown at the Georgia World Congress Center on the last day of the festival. Chemistry undergraduate Chris Hernandez was featured in an Emory Report article about the demos. Jeremy Weaver was featured in a WSB-TV video advertising the festival.

Emory Department of Chemistry graduate student Brandon Greene organized the popular “Science of Beer” event during the Atlanta Science Festival. The event sold out within a day of tickets being made available online, although Pi Alpha Chemical Society made additional tickets available to our graduate students at no charge. The event featured talks about the chemistry of beer and yeast by speakers including Prof. Emily WeinertMonday Night Brewing Company provided three special beers for attendees that helped to illustrate the concepts described in the talks.