Interview with UI’s Dr. Jerald Schnoor

Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa

Dr. Jerald Schnoor is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa, as well as the co-director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research. Dr. Schnoor recently took time out of his busy schedule to detail his current research and discuss how he first became involved in environmental engineering:

I became interested in the environment after following Earth Day in 1970. I was training to be a chemical engineer at Iowa State University, and I thought to myself that these same techniques – basic principles of mass balance and energy balances, and thinking about how momentum is transferred in the environment – could be used for environmental concerns as well as chemical engineering. I already had a job lined up with Procter & Gamble in process development. I was in charge of the detergent Bold, and they asked me to come up with a new formulation for Bold to take the phosphate out of it – which was an environmental concern, actually. I actually did that and patented it, but I don’t think they ever used my formulation because it was more expensive to make. In the process of doing that I again realized that I could use these same principles to help the environment, which is what I really wanted to do. So, I went back to graduate school at the University of Texas and I got my Master’s and PhD in environmental health engineering. I’m glad that I did that.

The first research that Dr. Schnoor describes is his work with phtoremediation, which uses different types of plants to control contaminants in the environment:

My students are the ones who are responsible for the research. They’re the ones who are doing all the work, they’re the ones in the lab, and they inspire me. We are working in three different areas, one of which is phytoremediation – using plants to clean up the environment. So, we use trees and grasses at field sites . . . We are trying out new technologies associated with plants cleaning up the environment. That has taken me into the realm of molecular biology, because once you try to do that and if it works, then you have to ask the question ‘why does it work?’ So, you ask basic fundamental questions like ‘what are the genes which turn on and express the enzymes that are responsible for degrading these pollutants in the environment?’ We want to figure out how it happens and why it happens, so that we can predict it, expect it, or engineer it and design it properly.

Next, Dr. Schnoor discussed his work in creating water observatories that can sense and predict contamination in waterways:

Another significant fraction of my students are working on water quality. In particular I’m interested in moving our field of chemical and environmental engineering from one that just evaluates and assesses problems after they happen, to one that is truly predictive or even used for forecasting. We want to use recent breakthroughs in technology such as wireless, broadband and nano technologies for sensors in the environment, and put all of these things together in a cyber infrastructure. We want to get it all on the internet so that other researchers can look at and use our data, and so that even citizens can see our sensing of the environment and learn from it or act on it.

We call [this project] the WATERS network. Right now we’re working on Clear Creek, and we’re beginning to expand to the entire Iowa Cedar River Basin, and Dubuque is also involved as our urban node. We’re also looking at flooding problems and water quality problems associated with flooding, including bypassing sewage. For example, when it gets really wet in Dubuque the hills there are flashy, and it floods quickly causing them to bypass raw sewage to the Mississippi River. We’re trying to analyze that problem and see if green roofs, bioswales, bioretention areas, rain gardens, porous pavement and all kind of other low-impact measures can fix that problem. Or, [we need to determine] if we need a whole new sewage system or a new wastewater treatment plant. We don’t know the answer yet, but we’re really hoping that we can do it with green infrastructure instead of redoing the built infrastructure.

My goal is to eventually build [this project] out nationally, so that we’ll have a national water observatory. If you really understand the phenomenon you should be able to predict it, and if you can predict it then you should be able to make forecasts of what it’ll be like in the future. For example, Giardia and Cryptosporidum, these are pathogens that run off the land from animals – both wild and domestic. If we knew they were coming down the waterway we could warn water plants to use a groundwater source instead of the surface water source, or they could change their treatment to make it more aggressive against these kinds of pathogens. Also, if we really understand harmful algal blooms . . . we should be able to predict them and tell people when they’re [at harmful levels]. We can also warn against reductions in dissolved oxygen in the water. We can even consider pathogens from terrorists – for example, we could detect anthrax or small pox that was weaponized and injected into the water.

Dr. Schnoor also gave quick synopsis of his passion for sustainability research:

I am interested in all things dealing with sustainability. I’m interested in life cycle assessments associated with the carbon in soils – how can we make the soils and biomass trees store more carbon and take it out of the atmosphere in order to moderate climate change? We’re also working on the water affects associated with climate change including flooding and draughts. Basically, in the entire world it seems that dry areas are getting dryer and wet areas are getting wetter. Here in Iowa, we are a wet area and we’re getting wetter. The clearest thing in our 100-year statistical record is that our storm events are getting more severe – that’s very clear and statistically significant. This is also happening quite fast – decade-to-decade the statistics are changing – and I’m interested in that.

The interview concluded with Dr. Schnoor recounting his decision to donate a $50,000 award he won last year:

When I was putting the slides together for my acceptance speech for the Clarke Water Prize I had a number of slides on what our students were doing with Engineer Without Borders and Engineers For a Sustainable World. One of the projects that I was mentioning was in Ghana – our students are often going back-and-forth to Ghana to work on the water supplies there. They’ve even developed a new hand crank generator to make chlorine to disinfect water supplies. They also developed a $5 device that can be deployed in order to make chlorine in the back areas of Ghana. I started thinking about how this is a really fascinating project, but there’s not much research funding for it. One of the most expensive things is that the students often have to fund their own trips. So, I felt that maybe I could help fund some trips for them. So, I gave the money to Engineer Without Borders and Engineers For a Sustainable World . . . and then the faculty advisor to these projects, Craig Just, was inspired by my gift and also gave $50,000, so maybe I’ve started something.

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