Spinning Wheels

POTTERY

In the northwestern corner of New Mexico, massive sheets of rock shoot out of the earth 7,000 feet high. It’s Shiprock—an iconic formation found among the 27,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation, and it stands at the heart of land poisoned by four decades of uranium mining.

From the 1940s to the 1980s, the federal government mined nearly four million tons of uranium ore from the land of the Navajo Nation, leaving behind at least 4 billion tons of waste and a toxic water supply. Today more than 500 abandoned mines remain, and some members of the Navajo Nation still don’t have access to potable drinking water.

UT engineering graduate student Lewis Stetson Rowles wants to change that, and he has an unusual secret weapon: pottery.

Rowles is part of UT’s Environmental and Water Resources Engineering group. “I feel destined to pursue this research,” he says.

In the world of science, amid rigorous experiments and hard data, there typically isn’t much room for art. But when Rowles isn’t researching carbon nanotubes with multi-metallic nano-scale oxide (one of his undergraduate projects), he leaves the lab and heads for his potter’s wheel, where he has fed his creative side since first learning the skill in high school.

And it’s Rowles’ ceramics skills that elevate his engineering and put him in a unique position to help solve water contamination problems, says assistant professor of environmental engineering Navid Saleh, who, along with professor Desmond Lawler, advises Rowles.

That’s because most water filters in developing countries today are either clay pots or plastic buckets with clay columns inside. But traditionally engineers haven’t paid much attention to the clay. Instead, they focus on technology and developing the nanomaterials that treat the water. Rowles is doing that, but he’s also examining the problem from a potter’s perspective, redesigning the clay filters themselves to make them more durable, effective, and efficient.

And that approach is completely new, says Saleh, who also taught Rowles as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina.

Their research is still in the preliminary stages, but ultimately Rowles is working toward redesigning the shape of the bucket filter’s clay column so that it has more surface area to interact with the water. He’ll also look at different glazing techniques for applying the nanoparticles that filter out contaminants.

“It’s a little unusual, a little bizarre,” Rowles says of his ceramics-civil engineering double threat. “But nowadays coming up with new ideas, the meshing between two seemingly different fields is really important.”

In fact, the merging of these worlds is so unusual that for a long time, it never occurred to Rowles to combine them. He studied each discipline separately, pursuing training and leadership opportunities whenever possible. As an undergraduate, he was one of five students chosen to travel with Saleh to the Navajo Nation to learn about their water treatment needs. Meanwhile, away from engineering, he helped start a ceramic program for intellectually disabled adults, teaching students how to create ceramic goods they could sell at local markets.

The idea to connect the two didn’t come until the end of his undergraduate career, and it happened almost by accident.

The Navajo Nation trip inspired Rowles to pursue a research career, and he decided to apply for a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship to attend graduate school. During a discussion about the application, Rowles mentioned that he was considering listing a ceramics teacher as a reference. Saleh had a flash of inspiration and suggested Rowles put his two passions together. Rowles agreed, adjusted his proposal, and snagged the fellowship.

“Sometimes students don’t recognize their own strengths,” Saleh says. “But Stetson has this skill that nobody else has! To actually incorporate fine arts and have somebody who’s a potter and involves the history, culture, and knowledge, that’s very rare in engineering.”

Saleh welcomes the influence from another field, and says engineers, himself included, need to be more open to scholarship from outside the sciences.

“Ideas don’t have a home; they can come from anywhere,” he says.

Saleh and Rowles are planning another trip to the Navajo Nation to learn more about that community, collect water samples, and meet with local potters. Rowles wants the pottery techniques used by the communities he’ll be working with to inform his ceramic filter designs. Right now he is examining historical glazing techniques and their interaction with nanoparticles. He is also working toward an internship with the Smithsonian Institution, with the hope of studying its massive historical pottery collection to learn about ancient techniques used around the world.

The NSF fellowship will support Rowles to stay on at UT through earning his PhD, furthering his work with Saleh and Lawler, and continuing the legacy of PhD student Anne Mikelonis, who has already been working on nanomaterials and ceramic filters for the last five years. From there he hopes to become a professor and continue researching in the lab and in the field. He is already thinking about his future students and says he wants to equip them with what they need to improve the standard of living around the world.

For the Navajos, that means having an affordable, efficient method for disinfecting surface water and decontaminating toxic groundwater, removing the danger from simply drinking a glass of H2O. Rowles hopes the filters he and Saleh are working on will meet that need.

As he explained in his NSF proposal, “It might not be as easy as making a pinch pot, but it will certainly be worth it.”

Illustration by Chris Gash

 

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