Environment

A group of chemical engineering students from the University of Kentucky’s Paducah campus has won a federal grant for the third time to further research on non-synthetic pesticides.

The group will get nearly $15,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Student Design Competition, which is given to university teams working on creating sustainable products.

This year’s grant will help Chemical Engineering Professor Jeffrey Seay’s students continue their research into using green chemistry to create pesticides in developing countries. Seay’s work has so far focused on Cameroon and India — two countries where it’s common to burn wood to create charcoal for cooking.

Building a processor in Cameroon.Courtesy Jeffrey Seay

Building a processor in Cameroon.

Seay said the process releases gas, which can be collected and reused with the help of a processor that’s easy to make.

“Normally, those gases are just released into the air,” Seay said. “So what we’re doing is condensing those gases and converting them into a non-synthetic pesticide.”

Those condensed gases are called “wood vinegar.” And that wood vinegar is also the base for a non-synthetic pesticide that could prove to be effective on local fields.

UK sophomore Sarah Willett has been working with Seay on the project for several years. She said the group is focusing on determining which trees are best for processing into both charcoal and wood vinegar.

“In India, what we ended up using for the wood source was a tree called the Prosopis juliflora, which is an invasive tree species there that the government is trying to get rid of,” she said. “So it’s really easily available and cheap. That worked really well with the wood vinegar, using a wood that they’re trying to get rid of to make something that they need.”

The newest EPA grant won’t pay for another research trip to Africa or India, Seay said. Instead, he and his students will use it to further research into wood vinegar and figure out how it’s best used.

Prof. Jeffrey Seay and student Sarah Willett on an elephant during a research trip to India.Courtesy Jeffrey Seay

Jeffrey Seay and student Sarah Willett in India.

“One of the things that we’re trying to figure out is exactly how strong it needs to be,” he said. “In other words, should we dilute it before you spray it on a plant, does it harm the plants in any way and is it effective at keeping the bugs away, and how does it compare to something you would buy at a home improvement store?”

Seay said once their research is complete, communities all over the world that rely on charcoal for cooking should be able to build and use the technology to keep crops healthy.