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Student Researchers Win P3 Award From EPA

Grad Students' Work Highlights 'Greener' Alternatives

From left: Asst. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan, grad student Sethumadhavan Ravichandran, Prof. Jayant Kumar and grad student Ryan Bouldin.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A group of student researchers from UMass Lowell is among 54 teams from 45 institutions nationwide that have been awarded with grants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a national student-design competition that focuses on “green” chemistry and engineering.

Graduate students Sethumadhavan Ravichandran and Ryan Bouldin, along with their mentors, Prof. Jayant Kumar of the Center for Advanced Materials and Asst. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan of Plastics Engineering, have together received a one-year $10,000 grant as part of the EPA’s P3 (People, Prosperity, Planet) Phase 1 program, which encourages the development of sustainable technologies that can lead to commercialization.

The team’s work involves developing “greener,” bioderived and environmentally benign alternatives to toxic halogenated fire-retardant materials. Ravichandran is the lead student on the project.

In addition to UMass Lowell, other universities that received P3 funding include Columbia, Stanford, Purdue, Texas A&M, Duke and Georgia Tech.

“It is indeed a great privilege for UMass Lowell to be part of this list,” says Nagarajan. "It is also important to note that graduate students rarely get an opportunity to come up with a novel idea and obtain funding to pursue research. We are very happy that Sethu and Ryan received this opportunity to further develop a new class of eco-friendly flame-retardant materials." 

Flame-retardant materials are used extensively in military and firefighter gear as well as in upholstery, textiles, plastics and consumer electronic items. The additives used to reduce their flammability are toxic and are often released into the environment, threatening both air and water ecosystems. These compounds have been banned in the European Union and in the states of California and Maine. Still, more than 900,000 tons of additives are used commercially worldwide each year.

The UMass Lowell team has demonstrated that fire-retardant additives derived from phenolic materials processed through environmentally benign synthetic routes show promise in replacing some of the more toxic materials currently used. The project has also received initial funding from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute and the UMass Commercial Ventures & Intellectual Property Technology Development Fund.

The team hopes to enter the EPA’s Phase 2 competition (with awards of $75,000) next year.