TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- After a year-long hiatus due to COVID-19, the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Summer Program recently returned to the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Readiness Laboratory here.
The month-long annual research program that began in 2008 is an opportunity for second and third-year cadets to experience Air Force life and some of the responsibilities and challenges that await them after graduation.
The program resumed May 24 – July 2, when five cadets traveled to the readiness lab to work with experienced Air Force scientists.
“Originally we didn’t think we’d be able to leave the Academy and come down here this summer, so this is an incredible opportunity,” said Cadet 2nd Class Julia Gundlach, who hails from O’Fallon, Illinois, and is majoring in Aeronautical Engineering. “I’m also on a pre-med path, so this is exciting for me to work on the engineering side and the bio side and help create things that will help solve problems for the Air Force.”
This year USAFA and AFCEC chose two project topics with cadets able to focus on one or work across both.
The first project focused on developing a sampling methodology for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and finding potential solutions to naturally remove and break down the complex, synthetic chemicals in water. The second project explored using bacteria to treat runways and prevent erosion and dust.
“None of these projects are being pursued by anybody else,” said Dr. Heather Luckarift, AFCEC contract research lead. “We’re doing research that actually benefits our Airmen and Guardians.”
While the projects are typically established by USAFA and AFCEC before the summer program begins, program leaders leave room for flexibility.
"When the cadets arrive, we start with a lab tour and we tell them if they see anything that piques their interest to add it to their list,” said Dr. Bobby Diltz, AFCEC research manager and program liaison. “This year we planned to pursue chemical agent detection, but we expanded the scope after one of our cadets expressed interest in chemical biology defense and methods for chemical breakdown pathways.”
The impact of PFAS on drinking water supplies is a very real-world problem the cadets set out to investigate. The Environmental Protection Agency has established a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS compounds – PFOS and PFOA – in drinking water supplies and the Air Force is conducting a nation-wide analysis of its installations to identify drinking water sources where PFOS and PFOA attributable to its mission activities may be present at levels above the EPA’s guidance.
Today, the Air Force is taking action to protect drinking water at more than 30 installations where the presence of PFAS threatens drinking water. Among the interim remedial actions the Air Force put in place are pump and treat systems that use absorption technologies, like Granular Activated Carbon, to remove PFAS from water. Biological separation is a common technique in PFAS remediation, but the long-chain compounds are difficult to break down, Diltz said.
During their time at the lab, the cadets studied bacteria, plants and fungi to see if specific organisms are capable of removing PFAS from water. One of the locally sourced organisms the cadets identified as a possible “green” solution was reed beds — layers of clay pellets that surround plants like duck potato and cat tails. The cadets used the pellets to filter microbes from an oil/water separator adjacent to the reed beds to see if they could withstand PFAS.
After five weeks of research and field testing, the cadets found organisms that could survive in PFAS-impacted water and that could potentially break them down.
"I’ve been looking forward to an opportunity like this,” said Cadet 1st Class Olivia Orahood. “I wanted the experience and the ability to do unlimited research and having the resources and mentors at our disposal was amazing.”
"There’s a lot of autonomy involved in researching and planning our projects. It’s definitely a steppingstone in responsibility,” she added.
With aspirations of becoming an Air Force pilot after graduation, C2C Madi Hirsch took particular interest in the runway treatment research using biocementation — the process of taking a sandy soil, like that typically found in Florida, and treating it with an organism and specific chemicals that allow the bacteria to produce a material that hardens the soil and ultimately acts as a soil stabilizer, reduces dust and can be used to build low-strength aircraft runways.
One of the challenges the cadets faced was finding materials and bacteria to penetrate deep enough into the soil to produce a surface with enough strength to handle aircraft loads, Diltz said.
Though their time working in the readiness lab has come to a close, the cadets will take the work they compiled back to USAFA in hopes of further identifying organisms and modifying them to be able to metabolize the chemicals of concern, Diltz said.
“These projects are extremely relevant to current and future Air Force needs, so we see the research coming out of this year’s program to continue for many years to come,” he said.
Looking ahead to 2022, the summer program managers are considering airfield damage repair procedures with cadets charged with finding ways to use ADR equipment remotely.