Scientific Creativity at the EPA P3 Competition

About the author: James Dale is a PhD candidate in Geosciences at Virginia Tech. Check out his profile on the VTSuN student page.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

This quote might seem like something from a poet or artist, but it is actually from the famous astrophysicist and science communicator Dr. Carl Sagan from his 1980 television series Cosmos (which was recently and fabulously updated featuring Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson). The scientific endeavor is often misunderstood as a cold, logical machine that marches forward in a relentless pursuit of knowledge, but many people remember being awestruck by the achievements of science and hopeful of its ability to solve all of mankind’s problems. For those of us who pursue scientific research, we know that science is the marriage of logic and creativity and nowhere is that more on display than at the recent P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) competition and expo held by the US EPA in Washington, DC on April 10th and 11th.

The EPA P3 competition asks student teams to design ‘solutions for a sustainable future,’ an intentionally vague statement meant to allow the teams to let their imaginations run wild. And they do. The teams identify new problems which pose challenges to building a sustainable world and attempt to solve these problems or take novel approaches to solving well-known and often very complicated sustainable issues, often quite successfully. Check out some of the submissions:

Iowa State University’s team
Iowa State University’s team. Image source: EPA P3.

Smart, self-cleaning clothes may still be a few years off, but until then a group at Iowa State is working to produce alternative clothing materials that could cut down on water, chemical, and energy use as well as being easily biodegradable to reduce waste sent to landfills. Through the processing of cellulose fibers produced by bacteria and yeast from the fermentation of tea with biopolymers from corn and soy, a high tensile strength material was developed that could be made into clothes.

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Image source: EPA P3.

Increased urbanization has led to an increase in untreated rainwater runoff making its way to waterways and a decrease in biological diversity in cities. The team from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University took the concept of a green roof one step further and made it a blue roof! Well, blue AND green. With a floating island on your roof you can capture water to grow plants and filter it through porous sediments before returning it to local watersheds.

University of Connecticut
University of Connecticut. Image source: EPA P3.

The crew at University of Connecticut was concerned with the toxic substances used as flame retardants. You may be thinking about fire extinguishers (admittedly that’s what I first thought!), but in reality many common products (think building materials) are treated with flame retardants in order to decrease their flammability, protecting property and saving lives by extending the time it takes for something to catch and spread fire. They were able to replace toxic compounds with a mineral in nanosheet form (a one dimensional nanomaterial) that physically blocks the heat and oxygen transfer required for something to burn.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Image source: EPA P3.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news you may have heard that US infrastructure is in trouble, with many roads and bridges in dire need of repair. Ultimately, fixing our infrastructure is only a temporary fix. Therefore, researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute are developing self-healing rebar which could dramatically increase its lifetime and reduce the cost to repair infrastructure.

University of Tulsa
University of Tulsa. Image source: EPA P3.

If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel, you probably know that they never monitor water usage and are therefore notorious for wasting potable water. The group from the University of Tulsa wants to outfit new and old hotel showers with their small, cheap, and accurate wi-fi enabled flow meter. Combined with their software, the device will raise awareness of water consumption, enabling hotel management and guests to work together to reduce wasteful practices.

Case Western Reserve University
Case Western Reserve University. Image source: EPA P3.

At Case Western Reserve University they created a nifty ultra-affordable, low-load, human-powered electrical generator. This seemingly simple generator enables users to pedal (like a bike!) in order to power a light or charge a mobile phone. At the projected price of just $5 per pedal generator to the consumer, this product aims to aid in replacing kerosene and batteries currently used as power sources in rural villages in developing nations.

Western Washington University
Western Washington University. Image source: EPA P3.

Science fiction has long told us that we’ll soon be harvesting the energy of our local star in every way imaginable on nearly every surface. Well the team at Western Washington University is working out the kinks to the next step: the photovoltaic window. Their working prototype (!) shifts the wavelength of incoming UV light with quantum dots (allowing the visible spectrum of light to continue to pass through) which is then directed to the edges of the window by clever use of total internal reflection, similar to how fiber optics work, where it is converted to energy using photovoltaic cells. To top it off, it’s a wi-fi enabled smart device!

The VTSuN booth, in collaboration with SNO, the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization.
The VTSuN booth, in collaboration with SNO, the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization.

VTSuN was on the scene with SNO talking about nanoscience and not surprisingly there was plenty of nanoscience on display in the competition. We spent our of time educating the public as well as some of the competitors – even those utilizing nanomaterials in their projects – about the science behind nanomaterials and the wide range of uses that nanoscience will have in the future of society. Our hands-on exhibits, the super-hydrophobic nano-fabric and kinetic sand, inspired scientific curiosity in both children and adults from many backgrounds. There’s plenty left to discover and create, so never let people convince you that science isn’t creative: good science is the marriage of imagination and knowledge!

To learn more about SNO, the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization, check out their website:

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