A Passion for Formulating SolutionsPosted on: January 1, 2012 in Research & Discovery
“I’ve been a chemical engineer all my life. This is my passion. This is what I like to do. And specifically, one of the things I like about chemical engineering is applying the chemical engineering knowledge to solving environmental problems.”
Connecting complex research outcomes to attainable solutions is what drives University of Arizona Distinguished Professor Eduardo Saez. Based in the Department of Environmental and Chemical Engineering, he is part of a legion of increasingly relevant engineers confronting environmental challenges.
“If you believe the climate forecasts, and they’re the best humans come up with,” according to Eric Betterton, UA professor of atmospheric sciences, “it’s going to get hotter and drier here in the southwest and presumably dustier as well. And if that dust is contaminated, as it is near mining operations with lead or arsenic, then people are going to be breathing more of it, so it does have those direct public health implications.”
Mining for Answers
Saez and his colleagues have been sampling atmospheric aerosols from Arizona’s Hayden Mine. They are looking to better understand the sources and transport of airborne contaminants. Another issue with consequences for human health is water reuse. He and his students are investigating the viability of advanced oxidation applications to remove trace contaminants that slip through current treatment processes.
Amanda Laughlin, graduate student in chemical engineering, is excited to be studying with Saez; she, too, is engaged in the idea of doing meaningful, practical research.
“Conventional treatment does remove some of the endocrine disruptors,” she says, “but people have noticed that things like bisphenol A and even the hormones that are found in birth control are still bypassing conventional treatment, so there is some worry about what’s being passed on when it goes down into the ground to the aquifer, because that’s going to obviously be your drinking water later on.”
Bisphenol A is an organic compound used in making materials used in plastics that exerts hormone-like properties. The data that Saez and his students are collecting is aimed at building a foundation for more effective water purification. And designing that purification process, first and foremost, requires chemistry.
“You need to have a chemical process that can destroy these contaminants. But the challenge for us is not to design that process in itself or the mechanism, but to take that to practice,” he says.
Worldwide Perspective, Dedicated Teacher
It comes as no surprise that Saez is doing research around the petroleum industry; he grew up in Venezuela where petroleum is an economic mainstay. His mother came from Spain and his father came from Italy; both still live in Venezuela. His family is spread around the world, and he was the first to get a university education. It was that university experience that ignited his interest in teaching.
“From when I was an undergrad just receiving education, and looking at people that could sit down with you for an hour, and after that, you would have knowledge for the rest of your life,” he recalls. “I thought that that was an admirable profession.”
Saez’s fundamental mission is to empower the next generation of chemical engineers.
“It’s tough material that he teaches,” says Laughlin, “but he’s able to do it and he’s able to explain it really, really well.”
According to Betterton, teaching is simply part of Saez’s nature.
“It’s nothing that you can fake,” he says. “You know, he really is interested in the students and educating them, broadly speaking, and advancing their careers.”
Involving Students in Solutions
Saez advocates strongly for involving students in the development of solutions to real-world problems.
“I think it’s very important for them to have these experiences because they gain so much from this type of work,” says Saez. “They also can make the direct connection between their engineering courses or their engineering education and what goes on in the real world.”