Water to row, water to purify, water to study

Phil Bresnahan's busy schedule starts with a 5:15 a.m. rowing workout.

The alarm buzzes at 4:40 a.m. Phil Bresnahan, captain and president of Lehigh’s rowing team, rises and reports to the boathouse for the daily 5:15 a.m. to 7:25 a.m. drill. Then he grabs breakfast and takes it to eat during his first class. When classes end, he does homework and errands. At 5:30 p.m., he begins a second one-hour crew practice on water or land. By 10:30 p.m., he is ready for bed.
That is Bresnahan’s weekday routine. On Saturdays, from September to November and from March to June, the crew team has all-day races. The rest of the weekend, Bresnahan does homework and chores and tends to his duties as a Gryphon, or student residence hall adviser.
Bresnahan, a chemical engineering major, also spends five to 10 hours each week on a research project in the department’s Opportunity for Student Innovation (OSI) program.
OSI students form pairs to conduct a research project that addresses a real-world technical problem. They are supervised by faculty members, and they receive six hours of academic credit over two semesters. Bresnahan’s advisers are Mayuresh Kothare, associate professor of chemical engineering, and Arup SenGupta, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and also of chemical engineering.
Bresnahan and his OSI partner, Mike Stern ’08, are working on a hand-held, portable device that tests for toxic chemicals in water and determines if the water is potable.
“We work with a hybrid inorganic material (HIM), which releases hydroxyl ions and makes the water very basic when water is flowing through the sensor,” says Bresnahan, who began the project last fall. “If there are toxic metals in the water, they will eventually flow through the sensor, bind to the hydroxyl groups and decrease the pH.
“We’re working right now on a general detection mechanism using zinc of a certain concentration for our initial tests. We’ve learned almost everything from scratch and have had to build everything ourselves.”
The HIM, which currently needs five to six gallons of water and a large glass column to detect the metals, was developed by SenGupta, who suggested it to Bresnahan and Stern for their OSI project. The students are aiming to create a smaller device that works faster. A cheaper, more efficient device, says Bresnahan, could be useful to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to developing countries for detecting toxicity in water.
The device uses a syringe to pump about 50 milliliters of water into a microtube containing HIM and then into a pH meter that measures acidity. If water carrying toxic chemicals encounters HIM in the microtube, it causes a reduction in the number of free hydroxyl ions and a sharp drop in pH.
“A great job”
Bresnahan and Stern have successfully used the handheld device to test for toxic metals in water. The initial tests required 10 hours to conduct. They have managed to bring the sensing time down to a few hours, and hope to reduce it further to several minutes.
“Phil and Mike have done a great job,” says Kothare. “Right now, we don’t really detect the toxicity in our water, but just filter it out to make it safe. This project can save money.”
Bresnahan has been accepted into the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a division of the University of California at San Diego, and also to the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. He has decided to defer admission to Scripps for one year in order to take part in Lehigh’s Presidential Scholarship, which offers a tuition-free fifth year of study to undergraduate students achieving a 3.75 GPA. Next year, he will take courses in environmental sciences at Lehigh.
Bresnahan has found it a challenge to allot sufficient time to crew practice, Gryphon duties, schoolwork and research.
“We have to schedule everything ourselves. One week, we may be in the lab twice as long as the following week,” he says.
“Philip has been a role model for the crew team and his peers,” says Kemal Tuzla, professor of chemical engineering and director of the OSI program.
OSI is an invitational program. Interested students should contact Tuzla or chemical engineering department chair Anthony McHugh during their junior year. Selection is based on GPA and course schedule.
--Rita Shankar ’08