Undergraduate’s Research Leads to Publication in Top Journal

Chenyao Zhang ’14
Chenyao Zhang ’14

For her senior research project, Villanova University Chemical Engineering graduate Chenyao Zhang ’14 worked with professors and researchers to develop the first mathematical model to simulate the processes of microbial desalination cells (MDCs). Zhang’s paper, “Mathematical Model of Dynamic Behavior of Microbial Desalination Cells for Simultaneous Wastewater Treatment and Water Desalination,” was published in the November 4, 2014 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, the leading scientific journal in the environmental field.

In MDCs, electricigen bacteria produce electricity from wastewater, and that electricity in turn removes the salt from saline/sea water. This capability suggests great potential for the use of MDCs in simultaneous wastewater treatment and water desalination. For her research, Zhang constructed a simulated model for MDCs, incorporating factors such as organic supply, salt loading, and current generation to affect the efficiency of the process. Using seven differential equations and 26 parameters, she was able to test and validate her model by conducting experiments on both bench- and large-scale MDC systems. Zhang found that her model was able to predict the response of the MDCs under various conditions, thereby allowing researchers to determine optimal parameters and conditions for desalination.

Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Dr. Zuyi “Jacky” Huang served as Zhang’s advisor on the project. He notes that her research and resulting publication demonstrate the opportunities that Villanova University offers to undergraduates. “There are not many top tier universities where undergraduates are able to work directly with faculty to conduct such impressive research. We are thankful for the support of the Villanova Center for the Advancement of Sustainability in Engineering, which provided a seed grant for this project.” Zhang is currently working at DuPont as a research chemical engineer; she plans to pursue a graduate degree in the next couple years.