Julianne Ganter: Environmental systems engineer at work

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Environmental systems engineering students Julianne Ganter and Joseph Smith test coal slurry samples.
Environmental systems engineering students Julianne Ganter and Joseph Smith test coal slurry samples
June 1, 2012

Julianne Ganter may still have another year to go before receiving her undergraduate degree, but that hasn’t stopped her from getting a head start on her career as an environmental systems engineer. Since last October, Ganter has been a steady presence in the mineral processing laboratory as she assists Mark Klima, associate professor of mineral processing and geo-environmental engineering, with his work on a new industry-sponsored research project titled, Strategies for Improving Water Quality while Enhancing Dewatering Performance.

The objective of this project is to maximize solids concentration during dewatering of coal refuse slurries, while achieving high solids recoveries and producing a handleable product. This testing will be coupled with treatment techniques to remove undesirable metals from the recycled process water. The feasibility of mixing proprietary chemical/ mineral additives to coal slurries prior to thickening and/or dewatering to reduce the quantity of polymer flocculants will be evaluated. It is anticipated that the additives will improve the handleability of the dewatered solids and will enhance the quality of the recycled water by trapping undesirable metals.

The project is part of a study commissioned by the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES), a consortium of nine universities established to address the environmental impacts of energy resource development in Appalachia. Currently, funding is being provided by multiple coal companies for ARIES to examine how coal mining operations affect the eco-system and water supply. Klima is part of the research team tasked with identifying ways to improve environmental performance of coal mining and processing.

Interested in the field of waste handling, Ganter jumped at the chance to assist Klima with his analysis of coal refuse slurry disposal at coal preparation plants. “The wastes from a coal preparation plant are a problem, and by assisting with this research, I have the opportunity to create solutions,” Ganter explained. “It is exciting to know that my research could have an impact on the industry.”

One aspect of Ganter’s research efforts is to test how effective a mineral compound is at removing the metals that may be present in coal refuse. Coal refuse slurry is a waste stream consisting of water and non-combustible material, which is removed during the coal cleaning process, allowing the coal to be burned more cleanly. The slurry may be disposed of by being injected into abandoned underground mines or into slurry impoundments. Because the refuse material may contain various metals, it can be harmful to the environment if not treated properly.

To begin, Ganter characterized coal slurry samples from the thickener feed of a coal preparation plant. The process included wet screening, dry screening, performing an ash analysis, and determining particle size distribution. Next, Ganter sent water samples and dried coal samples to the Penn State Materials Characterization Lab to identify what metals were present in the coal slurry. Once she received the results, Ganter had enough information about the composition of the coal slurry to begin testing its reaction to the mineral compound.

Ganter explains: “The mineral compound is supposed to adsorb metals, so I ran pressure filtration tests using the compound mixed with the thickener underflow. I tested the iron concentration of the filtrate to see if the compound removed any iron, and I also ran the pressure filtration tests by adjusting the pH of the coal slurry, adding the compound, and then testing the iron concentration. For each of the trials, I varied the amount of mineral compound added to the coal slurry and the time that they mixed. I then compared and analyzed these results.”

Testing will continue through the summer with another environmental systems engineering undergraduate student taking the reins. In the meantime, Ganter is looking forward to applying the lessons she learned from her research experience. “Although I have learned a lot from my classes, my research has allowed me to put my classroom knowledge into practice and has helped me acquire new skills. By participating in this project, I am learning proper lab techniques, how to operate the lab equipment, how to analyze data and how to problem solve. I have learned to analyze data and problem solve in the classroom, but analyzing my own data and solving my own problems is a valuable experience that all students should have the opportunity to do.” Adds Mark Klima, “A project such as this provides undergraduate students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to solving real-world problems, while developing skills that will benefit them in their professional careers.”