More than twenty years ago, Puerto Rico, a tropical island located in the northeastern Caribbean, was in one of its worst droughts ever. Meteorologists claimed the dry weather was attributed to the Pacific warming pattern known as El Niño, spread across much of the Caribbean. The water shortage was so severe that water was rationed up to five months for more than half of the island’s 3.6 million residents. It also caused crop production losses; vegetables like plantains, a Puerto Rican staple, lost more than one half its production, causing prices to double, according to a New York Times (1995) story.
Eduardo Nicolau was a 12-year-old child during the 1994 drought, and remembers it well. San Juan, Puerto Rico is his hometown, and where he was born and raised. To have water during service interruptions, people collected water when it was available in whatever containers they could find, such as plastic bottles, barrels and jugs for drinking water, and even paint buckets for shower water. “I had to go with my father every other week to an oasis near my house to collect water in containers. If we wanted to drink it, we had to boil it first,” he said.
Although conditions were dire at this time, Nicolau was fortunate to attend San Augustin Elementary School, one of the better elementary schools in the region. His favorite class was Earth Science (“Ciencias Terrestres”), which was taught with creative science instruction and hands-on activities. His enthusiasm for school and science both surprised and pleased his parents; they later enrolled him in Superior Berwind High School in Carolina, Puerto Rico, a specialized public school for science and mathematics.
By the time he entered the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), he was confident about his academic and career goals, but didn’t know how to achieve them. To many Puerto Ricans, his goals seemed non-traditional; science majors typically study to become physicians. This was not to be Nicolau’s path in life. He took a general chemistry course, and “... literally fell in love with it...” When he told his parents that he wanted to study pure chemistry, they were concerned about his future employment. “My parents did not like the idea at first. They did not understand that medicine is not the only thing you can do as a science major,” he said.
Nicolau was a first generation science major in his family. His parents were unable to mentor him, so he talked to his college professors who had mixed responses for him. “Some told me I was crazy, but the majority were quite supportive and even offered to help direct my career,” he explained.
With the help and support of his college professors, he attended a summer session through the auspice of the National Institute of Health, named Transition to Research Careers, as part of the Minority Access to Research Careers Program at UPR. The purpose of the program was to provide laboratory research experience to students interested in science.
Afterwards he knew he wanted to pursue a PhD to do further research. A biology professor and mentor understood his passion and had a grant from NASA’s Office of Education, named NASA University Research Center: Center for Advanced Nanoscale Materials. The grant funded certain minority universities in order to build their infrastructure and research capabilities. The center had three different Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs), one of which was water remediation. Nicolau fully understood the necessity of water remediation for his island, and accepted it as one of his career goals. He joined the Group.
To help formulate and focus the group’s studies, they needed an expert in the field and contacted Michael Flynn, a bioengineer researcher at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, and principal investigator for the development of NASA’s water recycling technology. Since water is one of the most crucial provisions an astronaut will need to live and work in space, the UPR Group wrote a proposal to develop a system that would purify urine while generating electricity aboard a spacecraft. The proposal was accepted and Flynn agreed to mentor Nicolau, which was the beginning of their more than ten-year collaboration.
After doing research rotations, Nicolau knew this career path was the right choice for him. He wanted a PhD in chemistry to become an expert in environmental nanotechnology, water remediation and catalysis.
The construction of the first generation forward osmosis secondary treatment system was completed in 2013 at Ames. The second phase of NASA’s water recycling system was the addition of an Alternative Water Processor, which was a part of NASA’s Next Generation Life Support Project in the Game Changing Development Program. It was especially interesting to Nicolau that the water processor had a membrane-aerated bioreactor to destroy organic contaminates and a forward osmosis secondary treatment system to remove dissolved solids.
Nicolau’s first internship was in the summer of 2007 at Ames under the NASA Science Technology Institute for Minority Institutions Program. He later received the NASA Graduate Research Project Fellowship for three consecutive years. While at Ames, he developed a system named the Forward Osmosis Interfaced BioElectrochemical system (FOBE), which uses a two-step process. First, the urine is purified using forward osmosis, then drained into a bioreactor that contains activated carbon and the enzyme urease. Urease degrades urea into two molecules of ammonia. “Interestingly, ammonia is a high energy density molecule similar to hydrogen. To handle the ammonia, we proposed using an ammonia alkaline fuel cell that would convert the ammonia into electricity and nitrogen,” explained Nicolau.
After receiving his PhD, he worked at Ames as part of a joint venture between Ames and UPR, as a post-doctoral Fellow for almost a year. Today, he is an assistant professor of chemistry at UPR, where he directs his own research laboratory in biomaterials for water remediation and bone tissue regeneration. He also is the director of the National Science Foundation Puerto Rico Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, which he attributes to his other Ames mentor, Ames Education Director Brenda Collins.
“Receiving financial aid and laboratory research experience made a huge impact in my career. It relieved the economic pressure, so I was able to concentrate my efforts on my career and research projects. All of this started, thanks to NASA’s education programs,” concluded Nicolau.
Author: Ruth Marlaire
Last Updated: Dec. 13, 2016
Editor: Rick Chen