Wood Water Filter Design Wins Regional Competition FPL Researcher Mentors Winning Student Team

A team of engineering students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) took first place in a recent American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) competition with a bit of guidance from FPL Research Chemist Mandla Tshabalala.

Winning water filter design using ponderosa pine bark as filter media.

Winning water filter design using ponderosa pine bark as filter media.

The contest, part of the annual ASCE Great Lakes Student Conference, challenged students from 18 regional universities to design and build a water filter for a hypothetical water stream contaminated with dissolved copper, molybdenum, iron, and phosphate. Filters were scored on cost, sustainability, and performance.

Students were encouraged to pursue filter materials that were easily available to consumers or waste products that could be given a second life.  In researching their options, the team (composed of Jack Richeson, Adam Dircz, and Brian LaQua) came across Tshabalala’s work on using wood in water filters, an arena he has been exploring for more than a decade.

FPL Research Chemist Mandla Tshabalala

FPL Research Chemist Mandla Tshabalala

Tshabalala met with the students and discussed the possibilities of wood for water filtration. He helped them consider various options for wood material, provided his research publications for background information, and showed them water filters he had designed, all the while encouraging the team to come up with a unique design and method of their own.

The students chose ponderosa pine bark as one of the filter media because it is readily available, cheap, and sustainable, and has been shown to remove copper and iron. Bark is a commonly available byproduct of timber processing mills; one FPL study estimates that the United States generates around 2.2 million metric tons of bark residues annually.

Along with pine bark, the winning filter employed sand and steel slag, a waste product of the steel industry. The design won first place by removing 83 percent of the contamination.

Filtered water samples.

Filtered water samples.

The UW-Madison Filter Team (l to r): Brian LaQua, Jack Richeson, and Adam Dircz.

The UW-Madison Filter Team (l to r): Brian LaQua, Jack Richeson, and Adam Dircz.

Video: Wooden Solar Cells Shine Light on Cleaner Power Option

solar_cellResearchers at Georgia Tech University have developed an organic solar cell made of wood using nanocellulose produced at the Forest Products Laboratory. The biodegradable, transparent films are designed to replace the layers of glass or plastic found in conventional solar cells.

Professor Bernard Kippelen, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Organic Photonics and Electronics (COPE), is leading the study. “We asked the question, if we are going to deploy plastic solar cells on plastic substrates, are we going to solve an environmental problem by creating another one,” says Kippelen.

Nanocellulose is key in helping Kippelen and his team answer that question as they work toward developing solar panels that are 100 percent recyclable.

Rural Community Endeavors to Eliminate Termite Problem

rachelarangoRachel Arango knows her bugs. As an entomologist for the Forest Products Laboratory, Arango has worked with FPL research microbiologist Rick Green to help purge one small Wisconsin town’s large termite population, saving its citizens tens of thousands of dollars while purchasing peace of mind.

rick green

FPL Research Microbiologist Rick Green

“It was a really big problem,” says former Endeavor village clerk June Schumacher, who coordinated with Arango and Green in 2006 when the project started. “Rachel and Dr. Green were very committed. They really went above and beyond,” says Schumacher. “Anywhere we thought there might have been termites, they put bait traps. They’ve done a great job.”

Endeavor is a struggling but determined village of about 450 people in central Wisconsin. Citizens first noticed termite activity in the mid-1980s. Initial infestation was likely due to stowaway insects on railroad ties or some other imported timber. Though particular districts in large metropolitan areas, such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, have been the focus of extensive ongoing termite bait programs, the project in Endeavor is an otherwise unique case of the community-wide eradication approach in the United States.


Endeavor, Wisc. is located about 43.7°N latitude, 100 miles north of where termites are typically found.

Using a novel community-wide approach — a unique combination of environmentally sensitive treatments and applications over several years — Arango and Green collaborated with private businesses, local citizens, and state agencies to combat the tenacious pest. Because of this work, the number of reported termites dropped very quickly after the first year and no termite activity has been detected since late 2009.


Bait stations attract termites with an insecticide powder they then carry back to the colony.

“Community-wide termite treatment is not at all common,” says Arango. “This project really needed to be approached differently than traditional termite treatment.”

The relatively isolated location and confined nature of the five distinct colonies, tens of thousands of termites, in and around the village center made Endeavor an ideal candidate for community-wide eradication efforts.

Drawing on a history of termite research established by retired FPL scientist Glenn Esenther; Green and Arango developed a three-stage eradication program in coordination with Randy Kalk and Dan Keohane of Alternative Pest Solutions in Madison, Wis., and Phil Pellitteri of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s entomology department.


Termites cause an estimated $11 billion in damage annually in the US.

“Without Dan this project never would have gotten off the ground,” says Green. “The folks at Alternative Pest Solutions are big supporters of the community-wide approach.” The research team, Green says, coordinated to “employ the most ecologically friendly methods for detection and treatment of termites, using the least amount of toxic chemicals possible.” Eradication, it is hoped, will improve property values and provide other long-term benefits for residents in this economically depressed rural community.

The financial savings per household for citizens of Endeavor is “very difficult” to estimate with such a community-wide approach, says Kalk of Alternative Pest Solutions. Homeowners in Endeavor who would have otherwise needed to contract with extermination services individually, says Kalk, have likely saved “tens of thousands of dollars in repair costs” by participating in this project.


Researchers at FPL work with termites to understand colony behavior and susceptibility to environmentally benign treatment options.

Damage and subsequent repair costs due to termite infestation nationwide is estimated to be about $11 billion annually. According to Kalk, termite treatment for the average homeowner costs about $1000 to $2000 per property for initial treatment. Necessary ongoing treatments cost an additional $300 to $500 per year and can go on indefinitely. Expenses vary depending on the size of the treated structure. Repair costs to address prior damage can be thousands more.

For this project, Green and Arango acquired bait stations through FPL, which were initially placed only on city property. Eventually, all Endeavor homeowners were eligible to participate.

The town’s location of about 43.7°N latitude, 100 miles north of where termites might typically be found, affords a unique combination of climatic, geologic, and hydrologic conditions for these destructive insects to thrive. Impending changes in global climate patterns, however, may eventually allow for natural migration of colonies further north, making eradication research at the community level all the more important. Traditional chemical-intensive management methods were avoided due to the potential for contamination of the town’s shallow water supply and adjoining river basin.

Just like the people of Endeavor, termites are known to be resolute. Or, as Arango says, these persistent pests “are much more clever than we initially thought!” Thanks to the collaborative efforts of local citizens, private business, state agencies, and federal researchers, the termite may well have met its match.

Forestry Leaders to Talk Landscape Scale Conservation


Typical terrain of The Driftless Area as viewed from Wildcat Mountain State Park in Vernon County, Wisconsin.

Top leaders in forestry will be visiting FPL and the iconic “Driftless Area” of southwest Wisconsin April 17-18, 2013.

Jim Hubbard, Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry; Paul DeLong, Wisconsin State Forester; and Tom Martin, CEO and President of the American Forest Foundation are gathering to discuss landscape scale conservation.

According to Michael T. Rains, FPL Acting Director,  the challenges of the Driftless Area in terms of landscape scale conservation are to encourage and support private forest owners in activities that maintain forest cover and provide an economic return for the landowner, while building functioning landscapes that support clean water, clean air, and other public benefits.

Rains will join the group to discuss how research at FPL can be effectively linked to the goals and objectives of conserving this important landscape.

(Photo credit: Dandog77, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TypicalDriftless.jpg)

Beyond the Board Artists Get Creative with FPL-Developed Product

A San Francisco art exhibition titled “By-Product Becomes Product” is the latest installment in a series of projects stemming from an unlikely partnership between art and science.

Barbara Holmes, "feed/rest/nest" 2013 (Photo Credit: Scott Chernis)

Barbara Holmes, “feed/rest/nest” 2013 (Photo Credit: Scott Chernis)

California-based artist and designer Christine Lee and Forest Products Laboratory engineer John Hunt have worked together since 2010, when Lee was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin. Hunt’s research focuses on developing composite materials, and Lee was interested in turning waste materials into new products without the use of toxic additives.

Their collaboration resulted in the development of a composite board made from sawdust and recycled paper that contains no adhesives and is fully recyclable and biodegradable. To see how the material performed for artists who use wood in their work, Lee recruited five artists to create pieces using the product she and Hunt developed.

Christine Lee, "Interwoven" (Photo by Scott Chernis)

Christine Lee, “Interwoven” (Photo by Scott Chernis)

The resulting art is on display at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco through March 30, 2013. Visit the California College of the Arts website for a photo gallery of the projects and to learn more about the participating artists and the inspiration behind their works.

Learn more about the collaborative work of Lee and Hunt in this Lab Notes post.