The inner workings of the Penn State EcoMachine

In the shadow of Beaver Stadium, on the far east fringe of campus sits the EcoMachine Greenhouse, part of The Sustainability Institute.

On a perfect Happy Valley day, I had the opportunity to tour of the facility and meet Dr. Rachel Brennan, associate professor of environmental engineering and director of the EcoMachine initiative at Penn State.

Having previously worked as the marketing director for a small water/wastewater engineering firm, I was aware of some of the steps needed to treat wastewater in order to reuse it for irrigation, industry applications, and even human consumption, but I learned about how Dr. Brennan and her researchers are using duckweed, plants, and fungi to clean water. This video featuring Dr. Brennan says it much better than I ever could, so take a moment to learn about her team’s efforts and see them at work.

Dr. Brennan also provided me with a little history of the EcoMachine concept, founded by Dr. John Todd in 1989, as the basis for a green solution to water and wastewater treatment. In fact, Dr. Todd’s non-profit firm, Ocean Arks International, consulted on the Penn State EcoMachine design.

Dr. Brennan’s enthusiasm for what she does is certainly contagious. I don’t know if it was the perfect weather, the beautiful flowers or Dr. Brennan’s explanation of what they do at the EcoMachine Greenhouse that had me so intrigued by this research project, but I encourage you to learn more about the greening of water treatment, and specifically Dr. Brennan’s work.

And one last thing: Dr. Brennan casually mentioned that her research earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, enabling the team to further explore the benefits of using a natural ecosystem to clean water of pharmaceuticals, metals, and other contaminants. While she was very low-key about the award, we at the College of Engineering couldn’t be more proud of her accomplishment. Well done!


Dana Marsh, director of marketing and communications for the College of Engineering, freely admits that she’s not an engineer but is fascinated by how the work of engineers impacts every aspect of a human’s day-to-day existence: from the houses we live in and the roads we drive on, to the smartphones and computers we rely upon. She’s now made it her mission to educate non-engineers about the real-world applications of leading-edge engineering initiatives. 

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