Published: April 23, 2021 By

BEHHT Insight’s overall process flow diagram for PFAS destruction.
BEHHT Insight’s overall process flow diagram for PFAS destruction.

A team of senior Environmental Engineering students have won three awards for their design work on PFOA and PFOS destruction at the Waste Management Education Research Conference (WERC) Environmental Design Contest. 

Claire Butler, Jenna Engelken, Mahalie Hill, Rita Trick, and Shelby Tllema are team BEHTT Insight -- the name comes from their initials. They earned second place in the Task Award on PFAS Destruction, a $1,000 prize, as well as the WERC Resources Center Pollution Prevention/Energy Efficiency (P2E2) award, with a prize of $500. 

Additionally, Butler received the Terry McManus Outstanding Student Award, with a prize of $1,000, after being nominated by Dr. Azadeh Bolhari.

The WERC Environmental Design Contest began in 1991 and awards over $30,000 in cash prizes for “solutions to engineering tasks by industry partners and government agencies.” 

Teams could choose from five different task tracks, which had options for desktop studies or lab-based studies. The BEHTT Insight team chose to tackle the issue of destruction of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), specifically targeting two chemicals under the PFAS umbrella, PFOA and PFOS through a desktop study, completing their design while being fully remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PFAS do not naturally degrade which has led to mass accumulation in the environment. While PFOA and PFOS have been voluntarily phasd out by the industry since 2015, the health effects of the PFAS already present in the environment can be linked to cancer, endocrine system disruptions, developmental issues, and lowered vaccine response. Current PFAS destruction strategies can be expensive, time consuming, energy intensive, and can give rise to harmful byproducts. 

The task was sponsored by CDM Smith and proposed by the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility/US Bureau of Reclamation. The deliverables for the contest included an oral presentation, three poster sessions with teams of two judges, and an IEEE paper.

The BEHTT Insight design begins by pumping PFOA and PFOS contaminated groundwater and treating it off-site through reverse osmosis. Then, the concentrated PFOA and PFOS is passed through a biochar-filled column filter. The biochar is made from the organic fraction of municipal solid waste. 

Ultimately, the biochar will be dried and mixed with calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2) before being heated to 850°C to catalyze the defluorination of PFOA and PFOS, effectively destroying them. 

The treated biochar can then be used to prevent landfill leachate, in fertilizer, or in wastewater treatment. Using a cradle to grave approach, the BEHTT Insight design resulted in a treatment cost of $0.09 per gallon of water, which is significantly less than the current cost of $2.00 per gallon of water thermally treated.

Team members say they were drawn to this design competition for their capstone project because students are often left out of the conversation when tackling our world’s most pressing engineering issues. 

Hill said their assessment of environmental impacts made the project stand out in the competition.

“The judges said they were really impressed that it was sustainable and that we put in the effort to make it cyclical. There’s a need for that in the engineering community,” Hill said.

The team worked well together throughout the process, and Engelken said their efforts shined at WERC.

“Because we’re a team of five awesome, intelligent, and amazing women engineers, we’re able to create projects that are more creative that add to things that other teams may completely miss,” Engelken said. “We’re able to create things beyond science with a capital 'S'.” 

With graduation just around the corner, the BEHTT Insight team is undoubtedly more prepared to enter the “real world” after their experience and success through the WERC Environmental Design Contest. 

Congratulations Claire Butler, Jenna Engelken, Mahalie Hill, Rita Trick, and Shelby Tillema on BEHTT Insight’s well-deserved awards!

Meet the Team

Claire Butler

Project Role: Life-Cycle Assessment and Life-Cycle Cost Modeling

Degree: Environmental Engineering, Energy Minor (May 2021)

Post-Grad Plans: Claire will be doing a summer internship with Corona Environmental Consulting continuing her work on PFAS and then will be starting as an Environmental Engineering PhD Candidate at Yale beginning in August, 2021. Claire also recently received an NSF Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship honorable mention.


Shelby Tillema

Project Role: Health, Safety, and Environmental Regulations

Degree: Environmental Engineering, certificate in Engineering Leadership (May 2021)

Post-Grad Plans: Shelby will be a temporary researcher for Dr. Bolhari this summer.


Mahalie Hill

Project Role: Systems Modeling and Engineering

Degree: Environmental Engineering (May 2021)

Post-Grad Plans: Mahalie will be spending the summer being a multi-day raft guide and then will begin at SGM in Durango as an entry level engineer.


Jenna Engelken

Project Role: Community Engagement, Public Involvement Plan, and Creative Director

Degree: Environmental Engineering (May 2021)

Post-Grad Plans: Jenna was in Australia when the COVID-19 pandemic and has been in Sydney throughout the 2020-2021 school year. She plans to spend her summer surfing and volunteering for a food pantry in Sydney. In the fall she’ll start working as a field engineer for Kiewit’s liquified natural gas plant in Louisiana.


Rita Trick

Project Role: Project Manager, Quality Control, and Lead Editor

Degree: Environmental Engineering, Environmental Design Minor (August 2021)

Post-Grad Plans: Rita plans to stay in Boulder for the summer and then travel to Peru to work on a vineyard.