New Ideas for a New Future – Michael Spehalski

Chemically enhancing agricultural yields has been a process used in America since the 1930s and spurred an agricultural boom that has led to an unprecedented production of efficiently grown produce. However, this doesn’t come without adverse effects. Soil leaching, insect immunity to pesticides, and the genocide of native plant life are just a few of the dominos toppling over into a great scheme of environmental harm due to modern agricultural methods. Chemicals are a significant part of these methods, and while the use of these chemicals certainly helps nourish an ever-growing population, it wouldn’t be ludicrous to suggest that they have an equally consequential, and potentially disastrous effect on the world.  

A new agricultural revolution is turning the corner; one revolving around advanced data-driven technology and sustainability. The current overuse of chemicals that contain elements such as phosphorus and nitrates to promote crop growth is due to the lack of oversight and data on crop yields, and it is starting to prove detrimental. A central issue with the use of these types of chemicals in agriculture is that the excess runs off into surrounding water supplies, which causes problems such as algae blooms, soil and water acidification, and general ecosystem disturbance. So how do we fix this? Of course, there is an array of solutions, ranging from complex to astonishingly simplistic answers. A newly emerging form of agriculture that is starting to form is called vertical farming. This process can also use processes such as aeroponics and hydroponics to use significantly less water and energy, but most importantly, fewer chemicals. At this point in time, these forms of agriculture are pretty well researched and are starting to be implemented across the world. However, I have a new vision that could not only complement these techniques but tackle even more environmental dilemmas.  

In the Fall of 2020, my first semester in college, I was awarded the research project manager position within Engineers Without Borders, University of Delaware Chapter. As a project manager, I lead an impressive team of driven individuals researching a newer form of technology called microbial fuel cells (MFCs). While the name seems quite daunting, the idea of it is fairly simple: create electricity from dirt. What? Yes, create voltage from the dirt beneath our feet. Without diving too deeply into the technicalities of it, a microbial fuel cell uses the microbes within the dirt in order to harvest electrons. In a simpler sense, it is a battery. Biomatter such as dirt is sandwiched between an anode and cathode coated in carbon. The carbon acts as an area for the microbes within the dirt to attach to and create larger colonies. As these colonies develop, they let off electrons, thus creating an electron potential between the anode and cathode—just like what the chemical reactions within household batteries do. My team tested and designed prototypes of microbial fuel cells within our university’s lab spaces in order to implement such a prototype in a third-world country abroad. I was also a contributing member to other similar projects such as designing water wells and pumps in the Philippines, which helped me understand the importance of such a technology in this type of area. Within my group, I was the driving force in prototyping and developing testing plans for our MFCs, and in so, I discovered a promising world of applications.  

Before discussing how these intriguing devices can help solve the overuse of chemicals in agriculture, discussing the additional benefits of MFC’s is worth mentioning. The biology and chemistry involved in this process not only creates an electrical current but can also filter wastewater at the same time. In future applications, a wastewater treatment plant can use significantly fewer chemicals and electricity to clean our population’s wastewater. Wastewater treatment facilities use vast amounts of electricity every day as well as consume large amounts of chemicals in order to clean the water. In the future, we can use an MFC process to not only clean the water with less of these chemicals but also power the plant itself at the same time – killing two large birds with one fractionally sized stone. This type of MFC would be designed differently, however, compared to the one used in agriculture. The design of an MFC used in agriculture could consist of having plants grow within the system itself. While the plants or crops grow within the system, an ecosystem of nutrients is created, causing prime conditions for colonies of microbes to grow. These colonies will not only facilitate more electricity within the system but also foster great growing conditions for the crops themselves. With more positive bacteria, oxygen, and other vital nutrients in the soil, the crops don’t need extra chemicals such as phosphorus or nitrates to help them grow—especially in regions where the soil doesn’t have a surplus of nutrients. With this also comes an electrical system that can provide power for data monitoring systems for irrigation and soil health without having to draw from a large power plant. In other words, a farm could be its own power plant and stay off a power grid. Being self-sustaining and off of a power grid that requires constant maintenance further helps the cause of using fewer chemicals as a whole because there wouldn’t be a need for coolants, degreasers, etc., within the mechanical systems of a power grid since there wouldn’t be a power grid.  

Imagining a world of self-performing farms running on dirt seems like something out of a science fiction movie, and that’s because we are quite far away from that reality. However, that is why we start small. Although there is much more research to do for my team to complete, I hope to one day see my research used in one of Engineers Without Borders’ partnering communities where they don’t have the luxury to use chemicals to help produce their own food or clean their water. Testing out an MFC system in this type of community would not only benefit the members of the community but also provide a microcosm of what an MFC agricultural system can do for the world in terms of lessening chemical usage. The environment can be affected by something that seems as minuscule as a pin-drop for the simple fact that the environment has its hand in everything that happens on this planet. Implementing one system such as a self-sustaining MFC not only creates a slew of benefits, but also lessens adverse effects from every industry: agriculture, transportation, energy, construction, infrastructure, and even the economy. Every one of these industries uses chemicals in some sense, so changing one aspect of this interconnected arch of systems, such as putting MFCs into agriculture or wastewater treatment, could be part of an answer to the evermore important question of how we can lessen our chemical use.

Clean ideas

“Clean Ideas Start With Me” – Naomi Davis

“99.9% effective at killing illness-causing germs and bacteria”. But at what cost? Surely many of us have had this revolutionary slogan embedded into our subconscious-posted with its gimmicky font and bright red color- on every Lysol disinfectant spray can there is. Sadly due to the COVID-19 and coronavirus pandemic, and after the U.S Environmental Protection Agency approved two of the products effective in killing coronavirus, Lysol spray sales skyrocketed to an increase of 50 percent. The disinfectant spray usage had gotten so severe that it caused nationwide shortages, forcing stores to strictly ration the highly demanded product. Changes in the CDC COVID guidelines has everyone desperate to stay as germ-free as the trusty Lysol slogan promises.

Society’s feeble attempt to remain germ-free has resulted in the prolonged and excessive usage of aerosol disinfectants. CDC regulations state that aerosol products must be used with extreme caution because it can cause irritation to the skin ,eyes ,airways and create other health issues. Although the product has its proven benefits, it also has been proven to create potentially life threatening problems -, way more than what is promised on the label. We must make a collective effort to sustain a clean environment without being heavily dependent on chemicals.

In 1989 NASA discovered that houseplants can absorb toxins from the air. The easily recognized “spider plant” is able to absorb strong toxins like formaldehyde, all while being nontoxic to humans and pets. The beloved bamboo, while being a tasty treat to pandas, is able to add healthy moisture levels into the air .during the dry winter months. Alas, the highest-ranked Chrysanthemum is able to eliminate common toxins such as ammonia. These well-known plants are also non-toxic to humans and pets, and extremely low maintenance. Clean Plant Therapy is a natural, cost-effective, and therapeutic way to purify the air. Studies have shown that plants increase mood productivity, memory, and concentration, while also reducing stress and fatigue. No pollution, no heavy chemicals particles being inhaled, just clean and easy breathing.

Another alternative to reduce chemical usage includes assessing one’s cleaning routine and the products being used. Substituting synthetic chemical cleaners for ones with natural derivatives is very significant way to reduce waste, or a daily routine to improve cleanliness that reduces the need to use chemicals unnecessarily. There is a multitude of options to maintain a sanitized environment without breaking the bank or compromising our health by using harmful chemicals. Although Lysol is a trusted household staple, being 99.9% germ-free comes with too many negative aspects and the cost would be sacrificing health itself, which is too high a price to pay.


Learn more about Naomi here!


Works Cited intimate-occasions-down-during-pandemic.html

Naomi Davis

Getting to Know Naomi Davis

Naomi Davis is a student at the University of Central Florida, studying social work. She is one of Ecolink’s six $500 scholarship recipients. We wanted to get to know a bit more about Naomi and her winning essay, so we asked. Here is what we learned about Naomi:

Naomi is a new student at Auburn University of Montgomery where she will major in social work. She plans to be a licensed clinical social worker so that she can help others and she would love to start her career in either Texas or Florida.

As a new college student, Naomi is taking her time to enter extracurricular activities while she adjusts to academic life. Starting college brings numerous incidental expenses so Naomi plans to use her scholarship money towards tuition.

Naomi is passionate about protecting the environment and believes the biggest danger to the environment is the carelessness of humans. She says, “We have a tendency to take Earth for granted.” For her part, she will continue to help the environment by using natural resources and products that will cut down on pollution and waste.

When asked what she would share with others over her environmental concerns? “Treat the environment like your house or apartment. You wouldn’t want pollution there, so don’t create it somewhere else.”

Ecolink is proud to award Naomi this scholarship and we wish her much success serving others in her career as a social worker. We look forward to seeing Naomi happily settled in Texas, Florida, or wherever her career and journey takes her!

Check out her winning essay here!

Sydney Manns

Getting to Know Sydney Manns

Getting to Know Sydney Manns 

Sydney Manns is a student at the University of Central Florida, studying English – Technical Communication with minors in Spanish and Hospitality Management. She is one of two of Ecolink’s one-thousand-dollar scholarship recipients. We wanted to get to know a bit more about Sydney and her winning essay, so we asked. Here’s what we learned about Sydney: 

Sydney is a busy student at the University of Central Florida. Along with her major in English-Technical Communications, and her two minors (Spanish and Hospitality Management), Sydney also finds time to volunteer! She is part of the Future Technical Communicators at UCF and she volunteers as a tutor teaching English for the Adult Literacy League. 

As an English major, Sydney does plenty of writing so she plans to put her scholarship money from Ecolink towards a new laptop! Her current computer has seen better days and with remote classes, jobs, etc. her laptop is her most essential tool. 

Sydney is very passionate about protecting the environment. She feels the biggest danger to the environment is humans. “We have a history of being wasteful, and if we don’t change our habits, then the environmental consequences will only worsen. If each person incorporates greener practices into their everyday lives—starting with conscience chemical use—then we can chip away at the harm we’ve collectively contributed and make way for a greener future,” she said. 

After graduation, Sydney plans to move to Madrid, Spain to teach English and continue her career in a remote technical writing position. 

Sydney practices what she preaches and continues protecting the environment, Sydney’s plans include trying to “minimize my waste at home, offset my carbon footprint when I travel, support companies with sustainable initiatives, and encourage others that I meet to do the same!” 

Her advice to others who share her love for the Earth: 

“Start small! Something as simple as taking a shorter shower, riding the bus, using a reusable water bottle, or choosing cleaning solutions with non-toxic chemicals has an impact on the environment whether you realize it or not. Find ways to make sustainable practices a habit in your daily life.” 

Ecolink is proud to award Sydney this scholarship and we wish her much success in both her writing career and in being a good steward of our planet.? We look forward to seeing Sydney’s future unfold as she travels abroad and passes her English skills and environmental passion to others. 

Check out her winning essay here! 

rethinking ink

Rethinking Ink – Sydney Manns

We touch chemicals every time we go to the store—the cleaning wipes for the cart, the plastic packaging of foods, the grocery bags…but what about the receipt? While the smudged black residue that a receipt’s ink often leaves on your fingers may not be the most obvious example of an everyday chemical, receipt ink is actually loaded with a variety of chemicals—and not necessarily the good kind. Receipt ink is different from the ink found in instruction manuals, term papers, art prints, and any other paper items that exit through an inkjet printer and into your outstretched hands. The ink used to markup receipts is formulated with toxic ingredients that can have detrimental effects on health, while those of inkjet papers are of a less toxic blend. But why can’t we make receipt ink too? It’s time to rethink ink. 

It’s important to understand why receipt ink is toxic in order to support the criticality motivating the need for a safer alternative. Receipt ink contains harmful BPA’s that absorb into your body’s bloodstream through direct contact with your skin (Kemler). These chemicals disrupt your body’s natural hormone chemicals, affect behavior, increase blood pressure, cause cardiovascular disease, and more (Bauer). As of now, the ink industry is relatively unregulated and many are unaware of the chemicals on the receipts they handle each day.  

While I can encourage those I’m around to go receipt-less next time they shop, receipts often print automatically or are an afterthought to transactions. Plenty of people still rely on a printed receipt from their transaction for various reasons, and eradicating receipts in favor of electronic ones isn’t the cure-all solution. In an attempt to minimize the exposure of customers to toxic chemicals, some stores have switched to thermal printing machines. These machines seem like a great solution but are not always an affordable option for small businesses and even some larger retailers. But rather than replacing an expensive machine, why not simply replace the ink?  Throwing out an old machine is wasteful and unnecessary if the root of the problem is addressed: the chemicals in the ink. 

There are several water-based and eco-friendly options for inkjet printers on the market, but not so much for the receipt-printing market. After further research, I’ve found that companies receive their ink in bulk quantities from professional chemical suppliers. These chemical suppliers also provide chemical consulting options to companies looking to become more eco-friendly and receive a consistent, high-quality product for their brand. What if these consulting companies could help formulate an ink specific to receipt printers that don’t include BPA’s or harmful VOC’s like the ones found on the market? 

If companies could swap their toxic ink for a readily available non-toxic ink that works just as well, then the chemical company would have access to every market that performs transactions—which is to say every market. Chemicals are everywhere, and so are discarded and forgotten receipts. An effort to minimize the toxicity of ink on receipts is also an effort to support safer and greener chemical usage in our everyday lives. While the idea of swapping any minor or major stores’ receipt ink is a lot for one person to perform by themselves, with careful planning and the help of a chemical consultant, this idea can become a reality, implemented small but with the ability to grow.  

Works Cited 

Bauer, Brent A. “Tips to Reduce BPA Exposure.”?Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 14 May 2021, 

Kemler, Beth. “New Report: 9 Out of 10 Receipts Contain Toxic BPA or BPS.”?Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, 12 Jan. 2021, 


You can learn more about scholarship recipient Sydney Manns here!