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Dordt College News

Sikkema wants Ph.D. to benefits others

March 14, 2014

Dr. Joel Sikkema knew he wanted to be an environmental engineer as an undergraduate at Dordt because they help solve so many different kinds of problems in today’s world. He also wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of people and the world around him.

An opportunity in graduate school to contribute to research that could reduce the effects of air pollution for people who live near roadways seemed a great way to start. Plus, it offered funding for his Ph.D. research.

“Research shows pretty conclusively that levels of air pollution, especially in cities, are putting substantial populations at risk. Upwards of 48 million people live in areas where concentrations of pollutants are at levels the EPA says could pose health risks,” says Sikkema.

“I thought it would be pretty cool to help reduce health risks for so many people,” he says. In addition, he was eager to work on greening the cement industry by helping mitigate pollution at its source.

Sikkema contributed to research on adding titanium dioxide to concrete as a way to neutralize air pollutants emitted by passing vehicles. Using the sun as its power source, titanium dioxide transforms water into hydroxyl radicals, a chemical species that is so effective at cleaning the air it is called the atmosphere’s detergent. Sikkema’s research tested formulations of concrete using titanium dioxide for their effectiveness in cleaning the air. They designed a photo reactor in which they could control the environmental conditions that can affect the oxidation of pollutants.

Sikkema’s research team found that the reactivity of titanium dioxide in current formulations was not significant enough to make a difference in air quality at this point. Nevertheless, they contributed valuable information toward reducing air pollution by coming up with a better tool for measuring the amount of substance removed from an area over time. Previous research did not offer a consistent way to measure.

The implications of titanium dioxide research could be significant, Sikkema says. One area might be in setting regulations for vehicles.

“Sioux Center may not need the same regulations that Los Angeles does,” Sikkema says. Money saved on blanket regulations might be better targeted toward more specific ways of decreasing pollution, he suggests.

Researchers are also finding other applications for titanium dioxide. It has been shown to be effective in removing air pollutants when used in air purifiers. It is also being used on architectural surfaces such as the white Dives in Misericordia church in Rome. Because of its hydrophilic properties, water gets behind the pollutants making it self-cleaning and saving maintenance costs.

“This is a good example of a multi-disciplinary problem for which Dordt prepares students well,” says Sikkema about his research. It involves understanding something about materials, transportation systems, chemistry, and much more. He credits the broad-based education he received as an undergraduate coupled with a perspective that emphasizes serving God by valuing the creation and people with giving him the tools to do his work well.

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