ECU engineering students receive medals at international forum

East Carolina University engineering students received two awards during the International Forum on Research Excellence.

Graduate student Michael Trapani, and undergraduates Danielle Werts and Mina Akhnoukh have been working with assistant professors Dr. Kurabachew Duba and Dr. Jinbo Chen on a supercritical water desalination project.

Danielle Werts and Michael Trapani stand by their research poster at the International Forum on Research Excellence. (Contributed photo)

Trapani, Werts and Chen attended the three-day conference that was sponsored by the scientific research honor society Sigma Xi.

An international panel judged research posters, with ECU receiving awards in the top graduate poster as well as the interdisciplinary research poster categories.

“We were surprised,” Trapani said of the awards. “It was nice. It was rewarding after working on something for such a long time.”

He said the judges had a variety of educational backgrounds, so he made sure the poster was relatable for all.

“I had an oversimplified version, and I think they (the judges) were appreciative of that,” he said. “They could look at it and understand what was going on. I tried to have our poster not be super technical. I wanted it to be more like a sales brochure.”

Research on the project began with a University of North Carolina System Research Opportunities Initiative grant of $1.4 million awarded in 2020. The project aims to develop a desalination system that would remove 99% of salt to create drinkable water while eliminating wastewater byproduct called brine from reverse osmosis systems. The current leading method of water purification is about 50% effective, leaving a highly concentrated brine solution that when released into waterways could harm marine life and ecosystems.

“The lab’s goal is to process the brine that comes from reverse osmosis through the desalination system to completely remove the remaining salt,” Werts said. “This optimizes the amount of purified water.”

Trapani said he has gotten a lot out of the research.

“Before this project, I really didn’t think about how important water is to the world,” he said. “We just turn on a faucet, and we have it. One of the judges was from India, and he was blown away by what we were doing. He said, ‘We need this in my country. The world needs this.’ He was super appreciative of what we were doing.”

More than 250 high school, undergraduate and graduate students attended the forum, which took place in Alexandria, Virginia.

Sigma Xi, based in Research Triangle Park, is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers, according to its website. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition.