Research Projects

This is a list of research projects that may have opportunities for undergraduate students. You can browse all the projects, or view only projects in the following categories:



Design and development of a low pressure drop and low flow rate airflow sensor

Research categories:  Agricultural, Electronics, Environmental Science, Industrial Engineering, Innovative Technology/Design, Mechanical Systems
School/Dept.: Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Professor: Jiqin (Jee-Chin) Ni
Preferred major(s): Agricultural, mechanical, or electronic engineering
Desired experience:   Laboratory and hands-on experience on mechanical and basic electronic work.
Number of positions: 1

Measuring low rate of airflow with low pressure drop is important for some high quality research projects. However, commercially available sensors for these measurements are either expensive or not highly accurate. This project will involve designing an innovative airflow sensor that is suitable for low pressure drop (e.g., <50 Pa) and low flow rate (e.g., <50 mL per hour) airflow sensor. The principle of the sensor can be mechanical, electronic, or combination of the both. A workable prototype sensor based on the new design will also be built. The sensor will provide output signals that can be acquired to a computer for on-line and continuous airflow monitoring. The successful design can be disclosed as an invention to Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization.


Detecting genomic regions responsible for disease resistance in Arabidopsis

Research categories:  Agricultural, Environmental Science, Life Science
School/Dept.: Botany and Plant Pathology
Professor: Anjali Iyer-Pascuzzi
Preferred major(s): anything to do with Biology, Genetics, or Plant Biology
Desired experience:   General Bio or Plant biology, Genetics preferred but not required
Number of positions: 1

Plants are constantly assaulted by pathogens – bacteria, fungi and viruses – and rely on the action of disease resistance genes to help protect them from microbial invaders. The identification of plant disease resistance genes is a key component of crop improvement, as without these genes, plants either die or their production severely decreases. This project will identify genomic regions in Arabidopsis that are responsible for resistance to the plant bacterial pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum. The SURF student will grow, infect, and phenotype 75 - 100 different Arabidopsis lines. Phenotyping will include analysis of root growth and development with the image processing program ImageJ and chlorophyll content analysis. The student will be exposed to multiple different aspects of biology, including plant development, plant pathology and image analysis. The SURF student will work with a postdoctoral associate and the lab PI.


Enhancing hardwood regeneration with select seedlings, fertilization and deer exclusion

Research categories:  Agricultural, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: Forestry and Natural Resources
Professor: Michael Jenkins
Preferred major(s): Forestry, wildlife, or similar discipline
Desired experience:   Tree identification (dendrology), forest measurements
Number of positions: 1

The successful establishment and growth of planted seedlings is critical to forest restoration. Improved techniques are needed to increase the survival of seedlings under intense competition and herbivore pressure. In 2008, a study was initiated to examine the how seedling quality, slow release fertilization, and deer exclusion influence the growth and survival of hardwood seedlings. This study will help managers and landowners better understand the benefits of fencing, fertilization, and genetic improvement on four major timber species (red and white oak, black cherry, black walnut) in hardwood forests. We seek an undergraduate researcher to help remeasure seedlings, analyze data, and prepare a manuscript for publication.


Experimental Characterization and Modeling of Energy Efficient Fluid Supply Systems

Research categories:  Agricultural, Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Systems
School/Dept.: ABE / ME
Professor: Andrea Vacca
Preferred major(s): ME - AAE - ABE
Desired experience:   Required class: fluid mechanics Preferred course work: hydraulic systems - fluid power Preferred programming skills: labview - simulink or amesim
Number of positions: 1

This project will consider a particular design of a fluid supply system (for a high pressure application or for a low-pressure automotive application), and will focus on its characterization on following aspect: energy efficiency (evaluation of source of power loss) and noise emission (evaluation of noise radiated by the system).

The student will learn how to model and experimentally characterize fluid power systems.


Inside the carrot root microbiome

Research categories:  Agricultural, Bioscience/Biomedical, Life Science
School/Dept.: Horticulture and Landscape Architecture
Professor: Lori Hoagland
Desired experience:   Coursework in microbiology, molecular biology, soil biology and/or plant pathology.
Number of positions: 1

The root microbiome represents the dynamic community of microorganisms associated with plant roots. Root microbiota affect plant fitness and productivity in a variety of ways that operate along a continuum from beneficial to parasitic. Our understanding of how root microbial communities are assembled and factors that influence the nature of their interaction with plants are still are in their infancy. This project seeks to address these knowledge gaps by quantifying how soil management and plant genotype affect the composition of the carrot microbiome and affect plant fitness under pathogen stress. A combination of culture dependent and independent techniques will be used to determine the identify and activity of microbes associated with carrot roots.


P-Band Satellite Remote Sensing Antenna

Research categories:  Agricultural, Aerospace Engineering, Electronics, Environmental Science, Mechanical Systems, Physical Science
School/Dept.: AAE
Professor: James Garrison
Preferred major(s): AAE,ECE,ME,Physics
Desired experience:   Basic understanding of electromagnetism is desired, but not required. Experience with electronic hardware, either academically or through extracurricular activities (e.g. amateur radio, robotic competitions, etc … ), is strongly desired. Experience with metal fabrication is also strongly required.
Number of positions: 2

This project will build an antenna for receiving satellite transmissions in P-band (225-390 MHz). We are using these signals as a source of illumination in a “bistatic” radar configuration, comparing the direct signal observed along a line-of-sight to the satellite, with the scattered signal reflected from the land surface. Theory suggests that we can use this comparison to estimate the water content within the top 1 m of the soil (called the Root-Zone Soil Moisture, RZSM). This is a very important quantity for understanding the transportation of water from the soil into plant roots, and this measurement has applications to monitoring agricultural production and climate change. The project will require the design of an antenna for a specific satellite frequency, based upon an amateur radio handbook. Mechanical design and fabrication is also very important as the antenna will be installed outdoors and must withstand extreme weather (rain, snow, ice), large temperature ranges, and exposure to wildlife.


Quantification of metabolic rates in photosynthetic organisms for production of renewable chemicals

Research categories:  Agricultural, Bioscience/Biomedical, Chemical
School/Dept.: Chemical Engineering
Professor: John Morgan
Preferred major(s): Chemical Engineering or Biochemistry
Desired experience:   knowledge of biochemistry, enzyme kinetics, mass balances
Number of positions: 1

The overall reserach aim is to understand how metabolic pathways in photosynthetic organisms respond to changes in environmental stimuli. In this project, the student will participate in experiments in which microalgae are fed isotopically labeled substrates. The rates of conversion of these intermediates will be analyzeded by liquid chromatagraphy coupled to mass spectrometry. The specific aim of this project is the understanding of how photosynthetic metabolism responds to environmental changes such as light wavelength and intensity. This knowldege is critical to rationally design metabolic pathways for production of renewable chemicals.


Recovery of Nutrients from Animal and Human Wastes

Research categories:  Agricultural, Chemical, Civil and Construction, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: CE and EEE
Professor: Ernest Blatchley
Preferred major(s): ABE, CE, EEE, ChE, BME
Desired experience:   First-year engineering, CE/EEE 350, previous lab experience is helpful but not required.
Number of positions: 2

Animal and human wastes are treated prior to disposal or release to the environment for purposes of controlling adverse impacts associated with these materials. However, some constituents within these wastes also represent potentially-valuable resources. If properly managed, these waste products can allow for recovery of valuable resources, and may represent a source of revenue. The aim of this project is to test, at bench-scale, treatment processes for recovery of nutrients and conversion of treated waste materials to a marketable fertilizer.

The specific approach in this project is modeled after a treatment system that has been implemented for recovery of nutrients from human urine at EAWAG (Eigenössische Anstalt für Wasserversorgung, Abwasserreinigung und Gewässerschutz, or Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology, Dübendorf, Switzerland). In this system, human urine is introduced to a reactor system in which partial nitrification of urea (and other sources of organic-N) is accomplished by nitrifying bacteria. The goal of this process is to convert urea (and other forms of organic-N) into ammonium nitrate. The nitrifying population is maintained as attached-growth on a medium that is suspended in the reactor. Oxygen requirements for the system are met by aeration. A clarifier follows the nitrification reactor to allow for separation of solids that are generated in the process. The partially-nitrified urine is then introduced to a distillation device to allow for separation of a large fraction of the remaining water. The products of this system are distilled water and a concentrated aqueous solution that contains nearly all of the macronutrients (N, P, and K) that were present in the original material (Udert and Wächter, 2012).

The proposed project will involve construction and implementation of two to four bench-scale reactors for use in treatment of waste materials that are similar to those that are treated by the EAWAG system. However, the waste materials chosen for this application are local to Purdue University.

Project Tasks
The list below describes tasks that are to be completed in this project. The overall objective of this project is to define the dynamic behavior of a nitrification/distillation system for recovery of macronutrients from animal and human waste materials. We envision two students being supported by this project to conduct the work described below.

1. Bench scale treatment:
a. Reactor construction – two to four bench-scale (1.0 L) nitrification reactors will be built in the Environmental Engineering laboratories at Purdue University. The reactors will be installed in a hood as a means of controlling odors associated with the substrates. Each reactor will consist of a 1.0 L gas-tight reactor, a small clarifier, and a small distillation unit.
b. Nitrification will be accomplished using an attached-growth culture of nitrifiers. Both reactors will be “seeded” with bacteria from an operating attached-growth system as a means of reducing the time period associated with reactor start-up. One of the reactor systems will be fed human urine from volunteers who work in Hampton Hall at Purdue University. Human urine was selected for use in this system so as to allow for direct comparison with the existing system at EAWAG. The remaining reactors will be fed a liquid waste material from BioTownAg in Reynolds, IN. The waste materials to be applied to each of these reactors will be identified in consultation with BioTownAg. Candidate waste materials include swine urine, untreated digestate, and treated digestate (solids removed).
c. Distillation of the treated waste will be accomplished using a commercially-available home water distiller.
d. The liquid product from this system will be collected and analyzed for chemical content, including N, P, and K.
2. Economic and market analysis: The potential market value of the liquid materials that are generated from these systems will be evaluated. In addition to chemical (nutrient) content, it is possible that one or more of these materials may be identified as organic fertilizer products. The “organic” label has potentially important implications in terms of the market value of these products. This market and economic analysis will include a review of the pertinent literature.
3. Mass and energy balance of the bench scale research: to the extent possible, mass and energy balances will be performed on the systems. The objectives of these calculations are to provide credible estimates of energy efficiency and resource recovery potential from these systems.
4. Preliminary design: Results from these bench-scale experiments will be used to develop designs for reactors to treat these same waste materials at pilot-scale.

Udert, K.M.; Buckley, C.A.; Wächter, M.; McArdell, C.S.; Kohn, T.; Strande, L.; Zöllig, H.; Hug, A.; Obserson, A.; Etter, B. (2014) “Technologies for the treatment of source-separated urine in the eThekwini municipality,” Proceedings, WISA Biennial Conference, Mbombela, Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Udert, K.M.; Wächter, M. (2012) “Complete nutrient recovery from source-separated urine by nitrification and distillation,” Water Research, 46, 453-464.


iGEM Project 2015: Canary in the Cornfield

Research categories:  Agricultural, Bioscience/Biomedical, Life Science
School/Dept.: ABE and BME
Professor: Jenna Rickus
Preferred major(s): Biological Engineering or Biomedical Engineering
Desired experience:   prior participation in the iGEM club or activities is preferred.
Number of positions: 3

This year’s iGEM project is focused around designing a natural indicator for plant stressors in an industrial agriculture setting. A major problem in the world exacerbated by the increasing global population is food security. Currently, about 40 percent of crop losses are due to pests and disease. If farmers can realize and address these problems early, they may be able to mitigate losses. All plants have natural responses to both pathogenic and environmental stressors. If these responses can be indicated by an external change in the plant, it would act as an early warning system for the plants around it. For instance, if a diseased plant were to change color, it would notify the farmer of disease in an area of the field, enabling targeted termination of diseased crops while prompting increased preventative measures for the surrounding crops. The project revolves around the identification of natural biochemical response systems, the design of genetic circuits to be transformed into the plant via agrobacterium that would cause the plant to have an external indication and amplification of the internal response, and evaluation of the effectiveness of these genetic devices. As a SURF project, we are looking for students to manage different parts of this design process, including researching the biochemical responses to various stressors, determining the proper genetic parts to create the desired response, design and prediction of function of a genetic circuit from the parts, and implementation of the parts/circuit into actual plant tissue.

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