A device designed by engineering and environmental science students to remove mercury from contaminated waterways has been successfully trialled and could be further developed for use in Indonesia.
The project was inspired by research from the Fenner School at the ANU. Dr Sara Beavis found widespread and unrestricted use of mercury in small-scale mining activities in Indonesia.
“There are around half a million small-scale mining operators. Including individuals, villagers and farmers who are using mercury to extract gold from the land,” Dr Beavis said.
“In the process, they put about 160 metric tonnes of mercury into the environment every year. So it’s a very big problem and I wanted to offer a solution.”
The device was tested in the Molonglo River just outside Canberra, where mercury levels are elevated from historical mining at Captains Flat. It incorporates an innovative polymer material developed by Flinders University researcher Dr Justin Chalker, which can absorb mercury from water in a safe and low-cost way.
Students worked with a group of researchers led by Dr Larissa Schneider from the PalaeoWorks lab at the ANU to measure the effectiveness of the device, which removed up to 98% of mercury present in the water.
ANU engineering lecturer Jeremy Smith hopes this success will pave the way for other interdisciplinary projects in the future.
“Engineers increasingly need to be able to work in interdisciplinary teams in order to tackle the complex and multi-faceted challenges facing the world today,” he said.
The project was supported by funding from the ANU Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering, with students in the team part of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program, which encourages students to explore complex global challenges of the 21st century.
The team took great pride in the success of the project, which extended them beyond their normal learning experience.
Current engineering student William Perren-Leveridge said it helped him push past what he was normally capable of with textbook learning.
“I felt very proud to be a part of this project; working with team members who were all incredibly capable and supportive, and with real material project outputs that could have a genuine impact on the future of the environment and real people affected by mercury pollution,” he said.
Fellow engineering student, Ruth Kravis, also shared her views on the value of the project.
“It was a privilege to work so closely with students and researchers from disciplines outside of engineering. Not only was I able to view the other disciplinary aspects of the project from my ‘engineering’ perspective, I was able to practice thinking from their perspective too,” she said.
“I think that kind of interdisciplinary approach helps you understand your own perspective better, and makes collaborating easier, which leads to better outcomes.”