Civil engineering undergraduates win first place in industry poster competition

A team of civil engineering undergraduates at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering took first place in the student poster competition at the Florida Section of the Air and Waste Management Association’s 55th Annual Conference and Exhibition. The theme of the conference, held at the FSU Turnbull Center in October 2019, was Shaping the Future: Risk and Resiliency. Seniors Priscilla Young, Ana Pinto, and Alix Kabre presented the results of their research on using polymer additives to enhance the behavior of bentonite-based geosynthetic clay landfill liners. The team was sponsored by FAMU-FSU Engineering professor Tarek Abichou and mentored by Ph.D. candidate Christian Wireko. Their winning poster was entitled “Evaluating Various Polymers as Additives in Bentonites for Aggressive Leachate Applications.”

Priscilla Young, lead author of the study, explains that geosynthetic clay liners are widely used as hydraulic barriers in many containment applications, including landfill liners. 

Students with poster“The sodium bentonite in the liner swells when wet, resulting in low permeability, which protects the groundwater from contaminants in the landfill,” Young says. “But the real problem occurs with aggressive liquids, like those with a lot of salts, or high alkalinity, because they can suppress the osmotic swelling of the bentonite and cause high permeability, which can be disastrous to the underlying groundwater. We wanted to find polymers that could counteract this behavior.”

The team conducted various tests on ten different polymers in Abichou’s research lab, including both natural, synthesized natural, and synthetic polymers. Wireko guided the students in developing the test matrix and setting up the experiments. 

“Christian has been a great mentor, especially because as a student himself he understands the stresses we are under and did his best to have us working in a fun yet educational environment,” Kabre says.

In addition to identifying several low-cost polymers that performed well in the study, the team also developed a novel index test that is more efficient in evaluating the performance of the polymer-modified bentonite, compared to traditional swell tests. 

The team is excited to have had the opportunity to participate in such high-level research as undergraduates. 

Pinto explains: “This research has helped me connect what we learn in the classroom to real-world issues. After the conference, I am now more confident in facing professionals and having won first place validated all the hard work we put into this project.” 

As a result of her experiences working with Abichou, Kabre has decided to remain in the laboratory to continue this research and is considering continuing her education in graduate school. 

Both Abichou and Wireko agree that the team of undergraduates excelled in their performance, both in the laboratory and in the conference. 

“I could not be happier with the results of the research,” Wireko says. “This topic is of impact all over the world and it is very gratifying to see our students take part in this.”
Abichou recently returned from Spain where he presented some of the research findings at the International Geosynthetic Society (IGS) Workshop on Barrier Systems to an international audience of landfill experts. 

“It is great to see these students grow from ‘regular undergraduates’ into intellectually curious individuals and citizens,” says Abichou. “It is great to be at a college that supports providing these type of co-curricular learning experiences.”