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Designing agrotechnology for dense urban communities.

The ability to design, build, and test technology is critical to the development of undergraduate engineering students. Our Capstone senior design class is driven by student innovation, and the teams are encouraged to seek advice from professionals other than the instructors and collaborators who are directly involved with the project. This allows students the flexibility needed to create innovative solutions to complex engineering challenges.

The Capstone senior design class is the second part of a two-semester design sequence taken by all ABE students. Students have the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects under the guidance of a faculty member or professional engineer as project mentor. The students demonstrate learning through a series of design-build-test homework exercises, inclass writing activities, written reports, and two oral presentations in front of professional engineers and business executives. In addition to their design work, the teams attend guest lectures given by a diverse group of experts from UF and outside the university.

The two projects summarized below addressed food security and safety issues in urban agriculture, with a focus on developing nations. These projects represent recent efforts at UF to incorporate biotechnology (e.g., sustainable hydroponics) and nanotechnology (e.g., biosensors) into urban agriculture.

Hydroponics in Urban East Africa

There is a widespread, urgent need for reliable, cost-efficient technologies to maintain a safe supply of basic resources in East African countries. Due to the poor soil quality in dense urban areas, many cities are exploring the use of hydroponics to improve net food production, and the practice has moved from research labs to community-based efforts. Hydroponic systems typically have higher yields and reduced costs for transportation, tilling, cultivating, and fumigation. However, while hydroponics is a useful practice, it imposes new risks of disease transmission through waterborne pathogens. For this reason, a disposable biosensor for monitoring pathogen indicator organisms is a critical design challenge.

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The goal of the senior design projects for 2014 and 2015 was to build and demonstrate a sustainable hydroponic unit for urban production of food crops, complete with biosensors for monitoring pathogens. The student teams designed, tested, and demonstrated a number of working hydroponic systems, including ebband-flow, aeroponic sprayers, and solar-actuated irrigation. The teams constructed pathogen sensors for measuring Escherichia coli in hydroponics systems using either electrochemical techniques or gold nanoparticle (optical) transduction.

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Wafer treatment in Colombia

According to the UN, over 10% of the global population does not have access to clean drinking water. In addition, the chemicals used to disinfect drinking water also produce harmful byproducts, which is a serious problem in developing countries. Non-chemical treatment methods, such as filtration membranes and solar disinfection, are being implemented, but inactivation or removal of pathogens over long periods remains a challenge. Disinfection of water using natural biological products that can be produced locally is a critical tool to augment physical and chemical treatment methods.

In the last decade, a number of organizations have used plant-based proteins, known as lectins, as a mechanism for removing harmful bacteria from drinking water. Lectins have been detected in over 1,000 species of plants. Lectins can be extracted from seeds using simple techniques, such as grinding and salt precipitation. The senior design teams in 2016 were tasked with designing a field-ready kit for extracting seed lectins and developing a bacteria filtration system for application in a community of displaced persons in Santander de Quilichao, Colombia. The teams successfully developed a field extraction kit for seed lectins and demonstrated proof-of-concept for a lectin-based water filtration device combined with activated carbon.

The feedback that these projects have received from faculty, students, and funding agencies has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly for the global aspects of the projects. In addition, these projects have produced a number of academic achievements for the students, including two student-authored peerreviewed papers that were published in 2016.

Eric McLamore and Richard Scholtz

University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
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Author:McLamore, Eric; Scholtz, Richard
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:Sep 1, 2016
Words:653
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