WBU science students spending summer improving water

PLAINVIEW – Better techniques to purify water carry the potential to affect the lives of many people and animals. For one group of students from Wayland Baptist University, that’s worth giving up a summer for research.

Seniors Lori Pretzer and Luke Loetscher and juniors Stephanie Skiles and Leah Quisenberry are spending their summer doing scientific research, funded in part by a grant from the Welch Foundation and under the tutelage of Dr. Joel Boyd, assistant professor of chemistry.

For the most part, the four are working on new and more efficient ways to kill bacteria in drinking water, using light and titanium dioxide. But each of the four is working on different facets of research in order to reach the best possible technique.

Loetscher, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo., is attempting to build a portable, battery-powered or solar-powered reactor, hooked to LEDs (light emitting diodes) that would provide UV light for the purification reaction with the titanium. Though the killing of bacteria takes place with visible light, Loetscher said the process takes too long to be practical for many applications.

“We know we can kill (bacteria) with titanium dioxide, and it needs UV light, but we’re using different sources for the UV,” he said. Specifically, Loetscher hopes to create a device that can be placed inside large drinking containers, causing the LED-titanium reaction to remove bacteria. His project is part of his honors thesis work at WBU, and his shorter summer stint is supported by the Honors Program.

Arizona native Pretzer is in her second summer of research, continuing in some parts work begun last year in which she and fellow student Philip Carlson discovered unique ways to remove ammonia from water. That work resulted in the filing of a provisional patent for the WBU science department for the technique of adhering the titanium to acrylic materials.

Her work this summer will primarily be to improve upon their techniques. While the 2006 work involved the use of platinum to create the reaction, Pretzer said she is investigating the use of a combination of platinum and palladium to increase the rate of the reaction.

“A lot of the work we’re seeing in the literature is using glass, which doesn’t work that well, or slurries, where they pour everything in and stir it around,” Skiles said.

Skiles’ part of the research will be a continuation of Carlson’s work, involving the reduction of nitrates in water using titanium and other catalysts, namely aluminum oxide and vandia. Another aspect of her work will involve using electrolysis to split water and the other reactors to achieve a neutral pH in water.

Quisenberry’s part of the research will involve trial and error with various metals used to create the purification reaction. While the titanium helps create the reaction, other metals used in conjunction have the potential to improve reaction time or efficiency. Quisenberry said she plans to work with silver, platinum, palladium, zinc and others.

For now, the students are using purified water and adding the contaminants in to do their research. Actual testing on field samples, Pretzer noted, will come down the road, involving the use of the city water supply. Her projects in particular have great potential applications to fish aquariums, and that may not be far from happening.

While the implications of the research have far reaching possibilities, the student scientists realize the summer’s work is also benefiting them with respect to the future.

“This is a great learning experience for me. It may be the biggest thing I take from Wayland when I leave,” Skiles said, adding she is planning to pursue graduate degrees in chemistry and one day work for a research institution. “Knowing how to do research will be helpful for me, a huge career boost.”

Pretzer wants to focus heavily this summer on the process of writing up research and interacting with other scientists, a key part of the research process. She is considering medical school or graduate work in chemistry after she completes her baccalaureate. She and Quisenberry agree this experience will be valuable in preparing for graduate school, though Leah leans toward the biology field. Loetscher plans a career in missions, using his expertise and learned knowledge in biology and agriculture.

Boyd and the students agree the summer format allows for a richer experience since students have more lab space and time to focus on their projects. Though many will continue to work during the school year, a full class load means the research has to vie for their time and attention. The joint effort is another benefit to both Wayland and the research projects, said Boyd.

“One good thing is that this has become truly interdisciplinary,” Boyd said. “Other professors have been so helpful in this process as well, like Dr. (Adam) Reinhart (associate professor of biological sciences) and Dr. (Gerald) Thompson (professor of science) and it has benefited all of us greatly.

“The isolated scientist in the lab is not a reality, so this reflects that well. The community format has been good for all of us.”