March 2008, Vol. 20, No.3

Research Notes

Tool Helps Prioritize Sewer Inspections

The Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF; Alexandria, Va.) recently launched a Web-based tool that provides municipalities with an inexpensive method of prioritizing their sewer inspections. Research by Brown and Caldwell (Walnut Creek, Calif.) under the auspices of the WERF project Development of a Tool To Prioritize Sewer Inspections (stock no. 97CTS7) led to a method that helps utilities identify pipelines at risk of structural and operational failure so that inspections can be strategically focused in the areas most likely to need attention, according to WERF.

The tool, known as SCRAPS (Sewer Cataloging, Retrieval, and Prioritization System), is principally aimed at small and medium-size utilities that may not have sufficient data on their systems to search effectively for potential failures, WERF says. It is housed in a computerized system that emulates the decision-making ability of a human expert.

The traditional approach to prioritizing inspections using age is not sufficient to identify critical pipelines and does not take into account a deeper understanding of the variables leading to failure, according to WERF. To develop SCRAPS, researchers interviewed experts in the field to create a knowledge base of the rules, facts, and actions that characterize possible pipeline failures.

According to WERF, validation studies have indicated that SCRAPS outperformed a group of experts in assessing risk and consequence in the examination of several case studies.  

Microbial Lessons

Beer, wastewater, microbes, and fuel cells are the components of a new high school science curriculum being developed by researchers at Washington University (St. Louis) and a couple of St. Louis area high school teachers, according to a university news release.

Lars Angenent, assistant professor of energy, environmental, and chemical engineering at Washington University, received a $400,000 career grant from the National Science Foundation to develop microbial fuel-cell kits and an accompanying booklet of physics, chemistry, and biology lessons that pertain to the cell. Angenent will make the kits available to high school science teachers everywhere as a visual, hands-on way to teach science.

Using microbial fuel-cell technology, Angenent is treating wastewater donated by local brewery Anheuser–Busch and in so doing creating electricity in a 6-L device a bit bigger than a large thermos, according to the news release. He uses a mixed medium containing thousands of organisms and optimizes environmental conditions to select for a bacterial community with improved electron transfer in anode biofilms, thereby increasing the electron transfer rate. In addition, he plans to work with a single-culture biofilm to allow a full understanding of how to use operating conditions to manipulate electron transfer in anode chambers.

“We are doing basically the same thing as is done in a hydrogen fuel cell with our microbial fuel cell,” Angenent said. “We’ve found that the bacteria on the anode electrode can act as the catalyst instead of platinum.”

With the grant funding, Angenent intends to advance the conversion to electricity by predicting the power output of various configurations of microbial fuel cells by determining the selection process for the microbial community in the cathode, thereby enhancing the electron flow. He also wants to understand how operating conditions can affect the biofilm at the anode.

The research will be integrated with an educational component that will engage students from St. Louis’ Hazelwood school district and encourage them to consider careers in science and engineering, the news release says.

The educational component will include development of two new courses at Washington University. One will be in bioprocess engineering for undergraduate and graduate students and will focus on how to transform waste into useful products. The second will be a molecular biology techniques laboratory class.

For more information, contact Angenent at  

Aiding the Fight Against Waterborne Diseases

An international consortium led by the University of Bristol (England) is developing a new diagnostic tool to fight waterborne diseases, according to a university news release. The consortium’s work is supported by a $13 million grant from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation (Seattle).

Aquatest is a low-cost, easy-to-use tool that provides a clear, reliable indication of water quality, according to the university. The small hand-held device is similar in concept to a home pregnancy test. Colored bands display test results, indicating, for example, that water is safe to drink for adults but not for children, the elderly, or the sick.

The test will detect the presence of Escherichia coli and is sensitive enough to enable detection of 10 E. coli colonies in 100 ml of water, which the news release says is equivalent to finding a single coffee bean in 4000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

The university said it expects that within 10 years, low-cost water-testing devices will be in widespread use in 80% of developing countries for water testing by industry professionals, communities, and individuals, leading to improved water management and a potential decline in waterborne diseases.

For more information, see  

Tailoring Research Findings to the Audience

An Oregon State University (OSU; Corvallis) scientist and outreach specialist who has spent part of the past 3 years working with community leaders in the Pacific Northwest on climate change issues says a majority of the public has accepted the fact that Earth’s climate is changing.

Now, he says, it is time for scientists and funding agencies to increase research that focuses more on adapting to climate change rather than on mitigating gas emissions — and at a local or regional level to help local communities develop climate change preparedness plans.

“As researchers, we need to better tailor our science and advice to the needs of our local communities,” said Michael Harte, a professor and extension specialist in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU. “Climate change is a global issue, but the specific impacts — and strategies to cope with them — will be local, and that’s where our help is urgently needed.”

In a talk recently at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (Washington, D.C.) in San Francisco, Harte challenged scientists to use their expertise to provide climate information that is relevant to the needs of communities — and to do it credibly, without resorting to “doom-and-gloom” scenarios, according to an OSU news release.

“People only have so much capacity to be scared,” Harte said. “If you live in a coastal community that has lost federal subsidies for its forestry industry, and your local library has closed, and there isn’t adequate money to run your schools, how worried are you going to be when an international panel proclaims global sea levels will rise in the next century? This information is far too general, and too far in the future for most people to worry about.

“But if you talk about past sea level rises — and about predicted rises for their coast over the next 20 years — and you’re living in a community that gets its water from a coastal aquifer, or you have an aging sewage system or aging flood protection dikes, the impacts become more real. Getting science down to that scale is the challenge.”

Harte is the director of the Marine Resource Management Program at OSU, where he also works as an extension specialist for Oregon Sea Grant. He has traveled to communities throughout the Northwest, listening to the concerns of local leaders related to climate change and asking what they need in terms of scientific information, OSU notes.

Harte and Denise Lach, an OSU sociologist, have found that information needs vary with location, which is why scientists need to scale down their research.

“People living on the coast want to know how great coastal erosion will be if predictions of higher sea levels, stronger winds, and more intense storms are true,” Harte pointed out.

“Fishermen want to know if they should continue to fish for salmon or switch to sardines,” Harte said “In inland communities, water is the main issue. Farmers want to know if drought is a more distinct possibility and whether they should invest in more expensive but less wasteful irrigation systems.

“This is the level at which climate change is real to people,” Harte added. “It’s where it strikes them in everyday life.”

“It’s also okay to admit what we as scientists don’t know,” Harte said. “We can predict more rain, but we’re not yet sure about where and when. Our models say the snowpack will decrease, but how much and how soon is open to debate. We need to take our models and make them as relevant as possible, as reliable as possible, and make sure we don’t oversell our findings.”

Contact Harte at  (541) 737-1339  .