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Engineering technologies to protect, improve Ohio’s water

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Growing up in Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” gave Linda Weavers a lifelong appreciation for water.

Professor Weavers examines a small vial before putting it in a tray for machine analysis.
Professor Linda Weavers, a recognized leader in leader in ultrasound technologies to treat contaminants in water systems, works in her lab in Hitchcock Hall.

It also inspired her research in developing innovative water and hazardous waste treatment technologies. 

Weavers, professor and John C. Geupel Endowed Chair in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering, is an internationally recognized leader in ultrasound technologies to treat contaminants in water systems.

Her research expertise and passion make Weavers a perfect fit to lead the Ohio Water Resources Center (WRC), the state’s federally authorized Water Resources Research Institute, with Co-Director John Lenhart.

The Ohio WRC funds water research, fosters collaboration among academia, government officials and industry, and trains the next generation of water scientists.

“The authors of the legislation established a federal connection and funding, but focused on the state’s needs in terms of water,” explained Weavers, who has been co-director of the center for nearly 16 years. “Our needs are different from state to state, but we do have some connection. Watersheds do not abide by state boundaries, so we need to work across those lines to solve bigger problems.”

Expertise on tap

Over the past five years, Ohio WRC has funded 34 research projects at nine Ohio universities, primarily in the areas of water quality and water technology.

“Things that have been very topical lately are harmful algal blooms and PFAS compounds, these forever chemicals,” Weavers said. “We've been starting to fund more research in that area.”

A 2022 report found PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) in rainwater and snow at levels considered unsafe to drink in even the most remote locations worldwide, including Antarctica and the Tibetan Plateau. Once widely used to create products such as cookware, waterproof clothing and personal care items, scientists now understand that exposure to PFAS can cause various human health issues, such as birth defects and cancer.

Weavers co-authored a study that suggests ultrasound may have potential in eliminating forever chemicals from contaminated groundwater. Although the technology is currently too energy-intensive and cost-prohibitive for use in water treatment, Weavers and her team are working to further develop it for larger-scale applications.

“PFAS compounds are unique because many of the destruction technologies that we use in environmental engineering for other hard-to-remove compounds don’t work for them,” she said. “So it's caused a lot of research to develop technologies that will work for these compounds, and ultrasound is one of them.”

Weavers is also a co-investigator for a WRC-funded project led by Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering Associate Professor Andy May to measure the downwind deposition of forever chemicals to determine their impact on water quality in Ohio.

“We're trying to better understand the sources that cause PFAS to go into the air, and then how it comes back down and ends up in the water,” she said. “Because if we understand that, then we know where to focus efforts to reduce those sources.”

Although the center’s funding is relatively small in scope, it provides critical support to seed innovative research ideas, said WRC Co-Director John Lenhart, also an environmental engineering professor at Ohio State.

“The Water Resources Research Institute program as a whole serves an important role in the research ecosystem because of its emphasis on local issues, on supporting the training of the future generation of water professionals, and providing opportunities for new investigators to get their foot in the door on local problems,” he explained. “I see a lot of value in helping new investigators get their research started, whether they're at Ohio State or any of the other number of universities to whom we provide funding.”

Lenhart conducts research in environmental aquatic chemistry and is interested in improving water treatment technologies. After algal toxins made tap water in Toledo unsafe in 2014, his team developed guidelines for cost-effectively removing algal toxins for water treatment operators along the Lake Erie shoreline.

Today they’re studying how effective conventional water treatment approaches are in removing microplastics smaller than five microns and virus-sized nanoplastics found in Lake Erie.

“Removal of the smaller micro- and nanoplastics was a little bit lower than the larger microplastics, but was still comparable—which was something we weren’t necessarily expecting,” said Lenhart, describing their preliminary results. “Although there are microplastic particles in the treated water, it's not a lot necessarily in terms of mass. In most instances, what we’re seeing in the treated water is a concentration of less than 20 nanograms per liter of water. So then the question in terms of public health is, do we care?”

Prof. Weavers talks to a graduate student in her research lab.
Professor Linda Weavers (right) discusses a project with Water Resources Center graduate associate Haleigh Fernandez, who is also part of her research team.

As part of its focus on training the next generation of water professionals, the center also supports activities like the Interdisciplinary Water Symposium. Planned by WRC graduate associate Haleigh Fernandez and fellow students, the one-day event shares knowledge and fosters collaboration in the water resources field.

“As a grad student you're focused on your own research,” said Fernandez, who is pursuing a master’s in civil engineering and a PhD in environmental science. “There is a lot of water research going on at Ohio State, more than I realized. We wanted to have this one-day event so students can start making connections that might be helpful in the future.”

Springing into action

When the pandemic hit, center leaders tapped their connections with researchers, regulators and policymakers to quickly establish and coordinate a statewide wastewater monitoring program to detect COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Because we have those connections, we were one of the early states to set up a wastewater monitoring network and build it out as large and comprehensively as we did,” Weavers said. “That has been transferred to the Ohio Department of Health and they're continuing that effort.”

Lenhart and Weavers also lead Ohio State’s efforts in Great Lakes ReNew, a six-state collaboration that aims to invent new ways to extract valuable minerals and toxic forever chemicals from wastewater. The Regional Innovation Engine will receive $15 million from the National Science Foundation for two years and up to $160 million over 10 years.

“The idea is to take research ideas, develop them as quickly as possible and get them into the marketplace,” explained Lenhart. “Improvements in resource recovery, water treatment and wastewater management should result from that.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu

Categories: ResearchFaculty