Tech professor seeks win-win with city

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Dr. Frank Huang, a professional engineer and an associate professor in New Mexico Tech’s Environmental Engineering Department, has a plan that he thinks could benefit both his students and the taxpayers of the city of Socorro. Huang’s students need working projects that will provide them with hands-on experience in environmental engineering. The city has an extensive infrastructure in constant need of maintenance and upgrades, and limited funds for engineering services.

A partnership that would provide free engineering studies and designs to the city in exchange for on-the-job training for his students is what he has in mind.

Huang pitched his plan at the city’s March 20 council meeting.

“Before they graduate, seniors are required to do a capstone design project that includes a study, an engineering design, an engineering analysis and an economic analysis,” Huang said. “I’ve been talking to Mr. (Peter) Romero and Mr. (Michael) Olguin about this, and I’ve worked with (Water Superintendent) Lloyd (Martinez.) This would be a way that my students can get practical experience and the city can get free engineering services, under the supervision of a professional engineer.”

As an example of a project that could be mutually beneficial is the city’s water utility.

“There’s water lost along the way in the distribution system, and that equals a loss of revenue,” Huang said. “The students could be helping the city put the data into the computer, doing modeling and trying to identify where we have the water loss and how to reduce it.”

Another project Huang suggested could give the city’s waste water department a head start when it comes to revisions in environmental regulations. Changes are anticipated in the future to address nitrogen levels in domestic and industrial wastewater. Huang said his students could begin measuring nitrogen concentrations and gathering data that would be good to have if or when those changes come about.

The plan calls for the members of NM Tech’s Environmental Engineering Club to talk with city staff and see what the needs of the city are. After choosing a project, the students would give a short presentation to the city council, and if the council approved, to begin work, giving regular status reports and making a final presentation to the council upon completion. Any costs would be minimal, and would include, for example, the cost of chemicals if a chemical analysis needed to be performed. The write-up for the projects would serve as the students’ senior theses.

Mayor Ravi Bhasker expressed some reservations, and said he would prefer the presentations and reports not be made in open meetings. He said he was concerned that the public would expect any problems the students discovered to be dealt with immediately.

“There could be a lot of money attached to things that come up,” Bhasker said. “My biggest concern is once you do the study and propose a solution and the newspaper gets ahold of it — like the nitrogen. That’s going to cause a lot of turmoil, and if the money’s not there…I just want to make sure we’re not getting into something that the city has no control over.”

Huang agreed to discuss his proposal further with the city administration.

Potential New Customer

At the same meeting, Utilities Director Jay Santillanes said the city has a potential new customer for natural gas.

“I had some interest from Dicaperl reagrding using natural gas, but they would need a lot more than we could supply in the winter time,” Santillanes said. “We maybe need to look at upgrading our transmission line.”

The initial estimates to upgrade the gas lines are between $250,000 to $700,000 per mile, for 38 miles, so it would be a substantial investment on the part of the city. It would also pose a significant initial cost to the Dicaperl Corporation, which would have to retrofit its entire operation, Santillanes said. However with oil prices rising and natural gas prices relatively low, the expense could result in future savings.

Santillanes said he’s looking into ways the city could meet the company’s needs, and said the entire 38 miles of line might not have to be upgraded.

“If we did an eight mile stretch, that would increase capacity by 20 percent,” he said.

Dicaperl Corporation produces perlite ore products for industrial, agricultural and horticultural uses.

 


-- Email the author at sbarteau@dchieftain.com.

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