Carnegie Mellon's Greg Lowry starts at the smallest level in his work to clean up some of our biggest problems: contaminated and polluted sites.
The professor of civil and environmental engineering is working with students to develop new nanoparticles to clean up toxins that resist conventional methods — especially those threatening the nation's supply of drinking water.
"I tell students that a fundamental understanding of an environmental problem — in other words, elucidating the underlying physical and chemical processes driving a problem or a solution to a problem — is the most valuable contribution that you can make," he explained. "I want them to strive for this type of fundamental understanding wherever possible — and to be sure to have some fun while they are doing it."
Lowry's work is being recognized with the prestigious 2009 Walter L. Huber Civil Engineering Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), awarded to ASCE members under 40 in honor of their notable research achievements in civil engineering.
"This award is national recognition of the work that my group is doing. It indicates that we are indeed impacting the field of environmental nanotechnology," said Lowry, who also directs the university's new collaborative Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT). "It is always nice to be recognized by your peers for your contributions to the field. It is very good for the students to see that their hard work is being recognized."
The "smart" new nanoparticles being created by Lowry and his research team are designed to clean up toxins that resist conventional remediation methods — specifically the dangerous, chlorinated organic solvents called trichloroethylene (TCE). TCE separates out from water as droplets, much like oil in water. But underground pockets of this chemical can steadily dissolve into the groundwater, which supplies more than 50 percent of the nation's drinking water.
Recently, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency awarded $14.4 million to create CEINT to explore the potential ecological hazards of nanoparticles.
"National awards are recognition of Carnegie Mellon's impact on the engineering fields," Lowry explained. "The Environmental Engineering graduate program at Carnegie Mellon is now ranked sixth nationally, so this award is affirmation of that ranking. We are indeed making positive contributions to environmental engineering and science."
Lowry will receive his award at the ASCE national meeting, May 17-21, in Kansas City, Mo.