Montana Tech design team travels to New Mexico to defend title
Montana Tech students will use fish bones, wood bridges and chemistry to defend their title and the school’s reputation at a national design
By Barbara LaBoe, of The Montana Standard
Fourteen students will leave today for the International Environmental Design Contest in Las Cruces, N.M. The Tech team took first place honors in
the event last year and also claimed the top prize in 1997 and 1998, making it a perennial contender in a contest that draws 350 students from elite
engineering schools. The contest is sponsored by WERC, a consortium for environmental education and technology development.
The week-long contest is designed to challenge students with real-life environmental problems. In addition to devising a solution to the problem,
students also must build a model, write a report and calculate the cost and construction schedule of their project — just as they would in the real
“ We had to condense six months of research into 20 pages for the paper,” lamented Kelda Hendrickson, a senior in environmental engineering. “
But we did it.”
The Tech team is working on three different projects for the competition: detecting radioactive iodine; removing uranium from drinking water and
building a scale-model bridge capable of holding 1,700 pounds of pressure. The teams are competing for more than $55,000 in cash awards and
travel expenses as well as the coveted first-place trophy.
The drinking water team had to devise an efficient and economical way to remove uranium from drinking water and turned to fish bones for the
answer. The project is based on a similar method developed to clean groundwater trenches. The phosphate in the bones and calcium found in
water reacts with uranium and causes it to turn into an insoluble mineral that can then be removed from water, Hendrickson said. Activated charcoal
was used to deal with the fishy taste and smell in the treated water.
The treatment costs only 8 cents per gallon because it doesn’t use expensive materials, and is a good way to use fish bones that are normally just
discarded, she said.
“ That’s the best part, really, because we’re utilizing a waste product,” Hendrickson said.
The iodine team had to develop ways to detect iodine 129 in soil, water and sludge and students used a wet chemical separation technique they
say is similar to the chemistry experiments many people faced in high school. The method would be of use mostly to government agencies trying to
determine which areas are contaminated and in need of clean up, said Jacob Seitz a senior chemistry major.
The students building a bridge had to design the structure using small-diameter Ponderosa pine. The goal was to have the bridge hold an operating
load of 1,700 pounds, but the Tech team far exceeded that standard during testing in Bozeman.
“ We couldn’t get it to fail,” said Bob Wilkins, an environmental engineering senior. The lab where it was tested went to 9,500 pounds of pressure
and the bridge withstood it all without breaking. The design is based on old railroad flat cars, Wilkins said, and has to be recreated by the team at
the contest site.
“ They give us all the materials and 24 hours and we have to build the whole thing there,” Wilkins said. “ But it only takes us about three and half to
four hours to build, so we should be fine.”
Students apply for the team and are selected by faculty advisors Butch Gerbrandt and Kumar Ganesan. The current teams have been working on
their projects since September. Some students work on a specific project while others, like those working on safety issues, work with the team at-large.
Students can receive credit for some of their work, but the hours far exceed a regular class, so students generally are drawn to the event more for the
“ You get to spend half a year on research outside of any of our regular schoolwork,” said Sarah Holm, a general engineering senior on the iodine
“ Before I was familiar with radioactive byproducts, but now I’ve learned just a whole gamut about where they come from and how they’re detected
and how they’re treated,” added Seitz.
“ And every year the same students that left stressed and worried come back and said it was such a positive experience,” Hendrickson said. “ So it’s
all worth it in the end.”
The students representing Tech are Hendrickson, Wilkins, Seitz, Sarah Holm, Andrea Holm, Doug Donegan, Andrew Gentile, Cody Lechleitner,
David Longtin, Andrea Manugh, David Richardson, Denise Stevens, Richard Hurd and Mariya Cronnelly.
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