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CSU Student Research Competition Highlights Novel Approaches to Sustainability Challenges

Alisia Ruble


Cal Poly Pomona engineering students Gerardo A. Maldonado, Minna Mattis, Stuart Geyer and Garrison Kanazawa, pictured here with faculty mentor Reza Baghaei Lakeh, Ph.D., pose with their first-place prize from the 33rd annual CSU Student Research Competition.

​​​​The California State University held the 33rd annual CSU Student Research Competition on April 26 and 27 at California State University, Fullerton, where undergraduate and graduate students from each of the CSU’s 23 campuses gathered to showcase innovative research and creative activities.

Among the cutting-edge research presented during the two-day event were projects aimed at providing solutions for real-world sustainability problems, including renewable energy and water management.

Turning Waste into Energy

A group of students at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona took home first prize in the category of undergraduate engineering and computer science for their work to find a way to repurpose reverse osmosis concentrate to store energy. Reverse osmosis is used in various industries to separate dissolved solids from water for desalinating and purifying water.

“The Department of Energy is looking for a way to reduce the cost of solar energy so that people will move away from using fossil fuels,” says Reza Baghaei Lakeh, Ph.D, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona and faculty advisor for the prize-winning team. “In order for that to happen, though, we need to develop a device to store energy. Without one, solar energy is still too expensive for customers.”

The project, funded by the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior, aims to create a device that uses the salt content, or brine, in reverse osmosis concentrate as a medium to store energy like a battery. In addition to reducing the cost of solar energy, the completed device will provide a more environmentally-friendly mode of disposal.

“Current forms of disposal are costly and damaging to the environment, especially the use of pipelines to bring it to the ocean, which changes salinity levels and is potentially harmful to sea life,” says Dr. Lakeh. “Using brine to store energy can help reduce our impact on the environment.” 

Dr. Lakeh has divided the project into three segments, each of which is completed by a new group of senior undergraduate students each school year. The group of undergraduate students from the competition—the second of three cohorts—are graduating this spring and will train the next cohort of researchers to take over the project in fall 2019. 

Providing Fresh Water to Rural Communities

Spencer McLintock, a master’s student in Humboldt State University’s Environmental Engineering Resources Program, presented his research on the development of a small-scale water treatment method using ultraviolet lights that is affordable and easy to use. 

The project, conducted under the guidance of assistant professor of environmental engineering Margarita Otero-Diaz, Ph.D., aims to help supply fresh water to people, especially to people in rural areas, who are not on a community water grid and rely on surface water for drinking.

 “Increasingly longer droughts are forcing us to divert more water out of rivers and streams, and the water coming back in is very nutrient-rich,” says McLintock. “This is the perfect storm for harmful algal blooms, which produce cyanotoxins that make people and animals who drink the water sick.” 

Other methods of treating surface water for cyanotoxins—like using activated carbon or adding chlorine—are expensive and require specialized training. McLintock’s device will be affordable and require little to no training to use. 

McLintock is currently working as an intern with CalTrans and after defending his thesis in fall 2019, plans to pursue a career in water management, helping communities make equitable water distribution plans for changing landscapes. 

Boosting Student Success

Research, scholarship and creative activities are essential components of a CSU education. Through these activities, the CSU advances student success, enhances faculty excellence and addresses challenges facing California and beyond.

Participation in research also contributes to higher retention rates—especially among undergraduate students and students from underserved communities—a key goal of the CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025, which is making progress toward improving completion rates and eliminating equity gaps.

Visit Research to learn more about how CSU faculty and students at each campus are impacting local communities and preparing for the jobs of the future. 

For a full list of 2019 CSU Student Research Competition winners, visit