Sustainability lab puts student skills to the test

Whether it's sourcing local foods for a cafeteria, planning a bike-friendly campus or even designing a dairy waste management system, University of Saskatchewan students are applying their knowledge to real-world problems through the Sustainability Living Lab.

By Jennifer Thoma
"We've been doing this on an ad hoc basis for years, but last year we decided we're really going to formalize and expand it," said Margret Asmuss, sustainability co-ordinator for the U of S Office of Sustainability. The initiative treats the whole campus as a "living laboratory," where students can apply their knowledge and skills.

For fourth-year biological engineering student Alanna Howell, it means helping the university deal more sustainably and cheaply with a bothersome byproduct of dairy research—cattle manure.

"I'm quite interested in waste utilization; that is, to use wastes in a way that can actually be beneficial," said Howell, who grew up on a grain farm near Stewart Valley, a small community southwest of Saskatoon.

Howell's work is set up to emulate an actual biological engineering project, with clients and deliverables, research on best practices and a proposed design and recommendations.

Currently, manure produced at the Rayner Dairy Facility is scraped into a pit, pumped into a tank for storage, then hauled away to be spread on fields. Howell said it costs the university about $65,000 a year for the service.

Howell is looking at a system that processes manure through a roller mill to separate the liquids from the solids. The solids can be composted and used to enrich soil. The dried compost could also be used for bedding, allowing part of the manure to be recycled for the dairy barn.

"It might actually be better than straw which, coming from outside, might introduce microbes (into the barn) from a totally different ecosystem," she said.

While dealing with manure solids is fairly straightforward, liquids are more challenging.

"What isn't known is how much it will cost to treat the remaining effluent to the point where it can either be flushed into the sanitary sewer or recycled as grey water, to be used at the facility in some way," Howell said.

To this end, Howell is looking at systems used in dairy facilities across Canada and the United States, and developing a short list of possible solutions for the U of S.

"From those alternatives, I'll be choosing one that I'll do detailed design on, and then present to the Department of Animal and Poultry Science."

Asmuss explained this is a typical culmination of a Sustainability Living Lab project—a solution that could be implemented by the university. The student projects can also provide valuable foundational information for university planners.

"We want to formally link students with sustainability challenges we have on our campus so they can use those as learning opportunities," Asmuss said. "A number of years ago, we had a group of mechanical engineering students look at (cooling and refrigeration) in Marquis Hall. When (university planners) came to do renovations, they asked for that study because it provided a lot of the groundwork."

Funding from Fisher Scientific supports the Sustainability Living Lab by covering costs associated with the projects such as travel, costs associated with field work, sample analysis, equipment rental or purchase, materials and billable hours from U of S units.


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Jennifer Thoma

Media Relations

University of Saskatchewan