News

Udall Scholarship winner helping to bring healthy water to South Dakota Reservation

6/4/2013 10:29:00 AM

Marika Nell, who just completed her junior year in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois, is one of 50 recipients from 43 schools this year of a $5,000 scholarship from the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation.

The foundation is an independent federal agency established by Congress in 1992 to provide federally funded scholarships for college students intending to pursue careers related to the environment, as well as to American Indian students pursuing tribal public policy or health care issues. Fittingly, Nell’s environmental pursuits benefit Native Americans.

Nell is the lead on the Oglala Lakota Water Project, a 12-person team of University of Illinois undergraduate students developing an affordable filter that can be used to provide rural residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, a way to treat well water. and treats water, which naturally contains levels of arsenic and uranium above the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum contaminant limits (MCLs). Over time, exposure to the arsenic and uranium has been linked to diabetes and different kinds of cancer. The project is funded by an EPA P3 Phase 2 grant.

A native of Maryland, Nell has had a passion for water quality and developing water treatment technologies for some time, and learned about Oglala Lakota Water Project at a an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) meeting her freshman year. Members of Oglala Lakota College approached The Center of Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems (WaterCAMPWS)  at Illinois about finding a solution. The undergraduates in the WaterCAMPWS REU program submitted the Phase I EPA P3 project as part of their WaterCAMPWS Education program.

A team of Illinois students traveled to the Reservation, the home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in the fall of 2010 and found that 35 percent of the private wells contained arsenic above the EPA MCL of 10 parts per billion (ppb) and six percent contained uranium above the EPA MCL of 30 ppb.

“There are existing technologies that can treat it, but it’s too expensive for the people there to afford,” Nell said.  “So what we wanted to do was create something that is both affordable and easy to make and use.”

The students have been developing and testing a solution, which involves providing residents with a filter using cattle bone char to purify the water. The group is producing the bone char on campus by taking bones from the U of I’s meat sciences laboratory, boiling them, crushing them in a mechanical crusher then charring them in a high-grade oven. The filter, which would retail at about $30 each would last about 3-6 months.

Nell reported that although the project has made significant progress, it is still in the prototyping stage. She hopes the team can make a trip to South Dakota this fall with a prototype.

“Our goal is to make a mini filter,” Nell said. “The less time you let the water spend in the filter, the smaller the filter can be, which means it’s cheaper, uses less bone char, and is more environmentally friendly.”

Nell has been active in other environmental projects on campus as well, working through EWB on the Nigeria Water Project  and now serving as co-lead on the latest EWB initiative, building a foot/light vehicle bridge for a village in Cameroon. The group is planning a pre-assessment trip for as early as this upcoming winter break.

Nell is also the chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, made up of 10 students charged with the distribution of two student fees, the Sustainable Campus Environmental Fee and the Clean Energy Technologies Fee. Those fees amount to about $1.1 million per year. The committee has allocated just over $1 million over the course of three years for the construction of a 13-acre solar farm, which would produce about two percent of the campus’ energy, on the south end of campus. The committee also supports the Student Sustainable Farm and the Illinois Biodiesel Initiative, where students make biodiesel from dining hall waste oil.

Nell will join the other Udall Scholars in Tucson, Ariz., on Aug. 7-11 to receive her award and meet policymakers and community leaders in environmental fields, tribal health care and governance before returning to campus this fall.

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If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Mike Koon, writer/editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-1256.