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Luis Cabrales, Ph.D.

Faculty | Bakersfield

“Our research could help alleviate the water problems in California’s agriculture industry.”

CSU Bakersfield chemical engineer Dr. Luis Cabrales knows that when undergraduate students can do hands-on research, they're poised to solve big real-world issues.

California's water shortage is no secret. Especially hard hit are the rural, agriculture-rich areas of the state's Central Valley.

Luis Cabrales, Ph.D., an associate professor of engineering at California State University, Bakersfield, has been puzzling out solutions to this problem for years. These days, he and his students are focused on finding better ways to clean and reuse water leftover from oil production, with the hope that it could be used to irrigate the region's millions of acres of farmland.

"We have very large commercial farming and oil production industries here in Bakersfield," Dr. Cabrales explains. "Why not work together and with our local community? We are in the ideal location to help."

It's that kind of thinking that has transformed the campus' Department of Physics and Engineering since Cabrales arrived in 2012.

"Research in how to reuse wastewater is in demand and we're doing it right here at CSU Bakersfield," he says. "The hope is that our research will provide efficient technologies to alleviate water problems in the agriculture industry, especially within our Kern County community."


Giving Dirty Water a Second Life

Water treatment research may not be easy for most people to get their heads around, but to hear Cabrales talk, it's as compelling a topic as there is.

Oil and gas production requires water, he explains. When taking oil out of the ground, oil companies pull out a substantial amount of water along with it, what's called "produced water."

Cabrales and his team of CSUB undergraduate engineering researchers, along with colleagues at California State University, Fresno, want to learn more about the short- and long-term effects of irrigating crops with a blend of fresh and produced water.

If their studies are successful, it could give a second life to water that is mostly discarded.

"A very small amount of the water extracted by oil companies — that which is deemed clean — is used for agricultural irrigation," Cabrales explains. "Our goal is to try and find ways to maximize the remaining water's use."

These are the research opportunities that brought the accomplished chemical engineer to the CSU Bakersfield campus; here, he believed, he could grow his interest in water treatment and also share that knowledge with students and the Kern County community.  

When he started at CSUB, one of the first things Cabrales did was reach out to collaborate with local industry. To date, he has received more than $1 million in grants for this research, from state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As an educator, his classes in environmental engineering always emphasize the practical, not just the theoretical.

"My main goal is to give students a good education by providing them with hands-on training in real-world problems," he explains. "The training my students receive in this area is very valuable and applicable; these are skills which can be applied statewide, nationally and globally."

If we can find a cheaper way to make more water available to the farms, this will in turn create more revenue for the county and the state. 

​Water for Farms, Revenue for California

So how, exactly, do you clean dirty water? "Removing the oil is the easy part; it's relatively inexpensive to do," Cabrales notes. "But removing salt and other inorganic compounds — now that's the hard part."

The professor and his student researchers — all of whom are undergraduates — will test the pH level, oil content and conductivity (an indicator of salinity levels, which if too high, can harm plants) in water samples, he says. Then they remove suspended and dissolved hydrocarbons and blend the produced water with high-quality irrigation water.  

"We will clean the water ourselves, irrigate the plants, and see what effect the treated water has on the plants and the soil."

Cabrales, who works closely with the CSU's Agricultural Research Institute, a multi-campus organization that partners with the agricultural industry, is inspired by the potential impact this project could have.

"We want to generate efficient water treatments that could help to reuse the water from different industries," he says, adding that "my students have a real opportunity to make an impact on the local economy.

"If we can find a cheaper way to make more water available to the farms, this will in turn create more revenue for the county and the state."


Solving a Central Valley Problem

Cabrales doesn't need to convince many of his students why it's so important to find a solution to the area's ongoing water issues.

"[This project] is a great way to expose students to real-world problems — problems that many of them may already be familiar with because they come from or grew up in this area," he says.

A number of Cabrales' former students have gone directly into careers in the local agriculture industry.

With these talented minds at work, the professor's aspiration that CSU Bakersfield become a recognized hub of water treatment experts — where faculty and students are called on for their expertise — may be realized sooner rather than later.

"What I like most about the CSU is that all students have interaction with faculty members, especially in my program," says Cabrales. "I know them all by their names and they know me. As faculty members, we give students the confidence they need to succeed."

Learn more about CSU Bakersfield's ongoing water treatment project and the CSU's Agricultural Research Institute.

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