From Cantaloupe Contamination to Methane Rain: Engineering Students Address the Myriad Challenges of the Home Planet at EXPO 2011

Thursday, March 24 2011

March 24, 2011

By Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – Student engineering innovations will be presented at the 2011 University of Idaho Engineering Design EXPO Friday, April 29, in the Student Union Building on the University campus in Moscow.

At the 2011 EXPO, students will address a wide variety of engineering challenges. Some projects are close to home, like devising a more effective method for cleaning bacteria from cantaloupe, and some are way outside the neighborhood, including measuring methane rainfall on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Each of the projects has the potential to change lives for the better on planet Earth, and all push the envelope of knowledge. A brief sampling includes:

Bacterial Removal from Cantaloupe Rind Using Golf Ball Washer Mechanism
Several bacteria are naturally present on cantaloupe. Three that pose the greatest health threats are Shigella, E.coli O157 and Salmonella.

Of these pathogens, Salmonella is the most common in the U.S., affecting approximately 15 (14.86) of every 100,000 people nationwide; Shigella affects about six (6.24) of every 100,000 Americans; and E.coli 0157 impacts one (1.19) in every 100,000 Americans, according to a Centers for Disease Control study conducted in 2007. Bacterial contamination in less developed nations is more severe.

Inspired by a golf ball washing mechanism, a team of University of Idaho students set out to create a more effective device for washing the fruit to obtain samples for analysis, which presents unique challenges.

“It is possible for almost any fruit or vegetable to be infected with these bacteria, but it is more difficult to effectively wash these bacteria off of cantaloupes due to the netting patterns in their rinds,” said molecular biology and biotechnology student Sarah Reichman, a member of the EXPO team that developed the washer.

A team of chemical engineering and microbiology students has designed and built a device that removes bacteria colonies from cantaloupe rinds, and will allow fruit growers to better detect and assess contamination levels.

Bacterial removal is accomplished using nylon bristles and buffered water. The water used to wash the cantaloupe is then collected for bacterial count analysis.

The student team adapted a golf ball washer mechanism concept to accomplish enhanced bacteria removal from the textured rind.

The student device is being developed for the Waste management Education Research Consortium (WERC) Environmental Design contest taking place April 3-7 in Las Cruces, N.M., said adviser David Drown, a chemical engineering professor and one of the EXPO team’s advisers.

“While the device is designed to clean single cantaloupe and preserve the bacteria sample for analysis, it should be practical to evolve the design into a multiple cantaloupe cleaner along the lines of a golf range ball washer,” said Drown.

The project is sponsored by British Petroleum North America, the Chemical and Materials Engineering Department and chemical engineering alumni. Advisers are professors David Drown and Wudneh Admassu; professors Allan Caplan and Dave MacPherson serve as project mentors. Student team members include: chemical engineering and microbiology student Karina Intan; chemical engineering students Keith Christopher and Jo Scholkowfsky; and molecular biology and biotechnology student Sarah Reichman.

• Insane Methane Rain Plane (Titan Rain Detector)
For the “Insane Methane Rain Plane” EXPO project, students and faculty are developing an experiment that can be flown on a future research mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Their findings also have direct application on the home planet.

With its nitrogen-rich, Earth-like atmosphere and landscape, scientists believe Titan's environment is similar to Earth's before life began putting oxygen into the atmosphere.

“The solar system represents a laboratory for studying Earth,” said Dave Atkinson, professor of electromagnetics and planetary sciences. "Many important discoveries about Earth have been made by studying the planets, including issues related to climate change, global warming and the ozone hole.

Atkinson has conducted research extensively with NASA and other agencies, most recently gathering data on the Cassini-Huygens mission. He serves as a mentor on the project. Atkinson and other student and faculty researchers believe studying the rain on Titan will offer unique insights about planet Earth.

Titan has a thick atmosphere of primarily nitrogen, similar to the Earth but with methane in the atmosphere playing the role of water in Earth’s atmosphere, Atkinson explained. Titan also is the only location in the solar system, other than Earth, where scientists have detected precipitation, and the only place in the solar system, other than Earth, where there are surfaces of liquid exposed to the atmosphere.

The student EXPO team and U-Idaho faculty researchers are developing a new method for detecting and measuring precipitation that will help scientists better understand Titan's weather, climate, storms and hydrological cycle, and provide insights into Earth’s own climate, weather, storms and hydrological cycle.

For this project, an interdisciplinary student team is creating a sensor to determine presence, amount and size of precipitation on Titan. The sensor will be space-qualified, attached to an aerobot space probe and capable of surviving Titan's atmosphere.

The Titan Rain Detector team includes faculty and students in biological and agricultural engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering. It is sponsored by the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium. Adviser is professor Tom Hess; mentors are professors Atkinson and Jason Barnes. Student team members include: biological systems engineering students Allison Tucker and Tim Kunz; and mechanical engineering students Kysen Palmer, Hieu Truong and Gabe Wilson.

The University of Idaho Engineering Design EXPO is the Pacific Northwest's largest and longest running interdisciplinary exposition, showcasing the world of engineering and technological innovation, exhibiting the innovative teamwork of senior engineering students who have applied theoretically and academically acquired knowledge to an engineering problem. For more information about EXPO and a full schedule of events, visit
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is classified by the prestigious Carnegie Foundation as high research activity. The student population of 12,000 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. For more information, visit