Kevin Orner’s desire to engage in research which contributes to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be traced back to his involvement as an undergraduate student with Engineers Without Borders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Through volunteering with this organization, I learned that engineers can use their skills to address the needs of society, both locally and globally,” he says. “I served as project manager for a team of thirteen undergraduate students on the expansion of a wastewater collection system in El Salvador.”
Kevin later designed and implemented an upgrade to a water supply system for an indigenous rural community in Ecuador. “Through my undergraduate experiences, I developed a passion to use engineering to address worldwide needs, such as protecting the natural environment, achieving a sustainable food supply, and providing clean drinking water and safe sanitation,” he says.
He previously served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Water and Sanitation in Panama. There he investigated how in-line chlorination can disinfect rural water supplies. “I facilitated several six-day water management seminars for rural Panamanian water committees,” says Kevin. “The high value placed by the Panamanian people on relationships, simplicity of life, and environmental knowledge, even while experiencing the harsh consequences of lack of access to water and sanitation, still motivates me today to pursue research that benefits those in rural contexts.”
Kevin, a native of Eden Prairie, Minnesota and a PhD Candidate in Environmental Engineering at USF, was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program Research Grant to Costa Rica. This award provided the opportunity for him to construct and analyze a reactor that precipitates struvite, a slow-release fertilizer. The reactor receives liquid waste from a tubular digester, which uses microorganisms to break down biodegradable material in livestock or human wastes. This process will allow farmers to have a local organic option for obtaining fertilizer, reducing the need for synthetic products.
The objective of his Fulbright Research Grant to Costa Rica was to determine the effectiveness of tubular digesters and a struvite precipitation reactor in treating livestock waste. “These wastes contain carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, which, when discharged in excess, can negatively affect water quality and aquatic ecosystems,” Kevin explains. “Biogas from the digesters can be used to heat water or buildings, cook, or even produce electricity, limiting the need for fossil fuels or wood as fuel sources.” Costa Rica was the ideal location to carry out his research given its desire to protect the environment and its lack of wastewater treatment infrastructure.
During the 10 months he spent in Costa Rica, Kevin and his team developed a treatment system for agricultural waste in a rural farming area. The system consisted of two small-scale tubular anaerobic digesters that were integrated with a low-cost, locally produced struvite precipitation reactor. The treatment system was researched to quantify nutrient recovery and to understand recovery mechanisms.
This system offers multiple benefits to Costa Ricans: improved sanitation, nutrient removal to prevent excessive nutrients in water that may cause algae blooms, recovery of struvite as a potential fertilizer, and production of a final liquid stream that is suitable for irrigation.
“These results are examples of how quantifying and understanding nutrient recovery from agricultural waste can facilitate progress toward multiple environmental development goals,” explains Kevin. “These measures improve sanitation and food security, promote sustainable management of wastes and natural resources, and support local ecosystems.”
In addition to receiving the Fulbright Research Grant in 2017, Kevin was awarded the American Water Works Association Roy W. Likins Scholarship in 2016 for academic achievement and involvement in drinking water industry technical initiatives.
During the application process for both national scholarship awards, he worked closely with the Office of National Scholarships (ONS). "The Office of National Scholarships provided clear directions to facilitate a complicated application process," he says. "Particularly, Ms. Lauren Chambers provided great support and encouragement." Lauren is USF’s student Fulbright Program Advisor (FPA) and works with students on their Fulbright application materials through a rigorous campus application and endorsement process.
Kevin also attributes his success to the support of his PhD advisors. "I am thankful for my co-advisors, Dr. Jeffrey Cunningham and Dr. James Mihelcic, for their challenging guidance and warm encouragement to help me advance in my academic pursuits."
He looks forward to continuing his groundbreaking research in the classroom and beyond.
"My long-term goal is to obtain a tenure-track faculty position in Environmental Engineering," says Kevin. "I intend to research resource recovery technologies, teach with integrated sustainability themes and international applications, and serve local and global communities through sustained mutually beneficial collaborations - the Fulbright award provided me with the experience and network to pursue that goal."
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program provides grants for individually designed study/research projects or for English Teaching Assistant Programs. During their grants, Fulbrighters meet, work, live with and learn from the people of the host country and share daily experiences.
Students interested in applying to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program should contact Ms. Lauren Chambers, Associate Director of ONS and Fulbright Program Advisor (FPA) at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an advising appointment.
Kevin's story is featured in the 2019 edition of Legacies.