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Colombian scholar works with ultrafine bubbles to purify agricultural water

Eduart Murcia, 24, has never known a day without fresh fruit and vegetables. A locavore and an undergraduate student intern at a research facility, Murcia’s work is to explore methods to manage and sustain freshwater for agriculture.

Murcia is an undergraduate senior at the National University of Colombia, in Bogotá, Colombia, South America, where he pursues two majors, one in agricultural engineering, a second in civil engineering. To enhance his studies, he sought an internship where he could learn novel irrigation techniques. An online search led him to Sandra Guzmán’s smart irrigation and hydrology lab at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science’s Indian River Research and Education Center (UF/IFAS IRREC). One of twelve UF/IFAS locations throughout the state’s most important agricultural regions, the center and UF/IFAS serve Florida with research, education and Extension for both agricultural and natural resources industries. Twelve IRREC research professors serve growers who produce the world’s highest quality grapefruit; the scientists also work to protect the environment.

Guzmán accepted Murcia’s inquiry and oversees his work with ultrafine bubbles as a tool to enhance water quality in agricultural production.

“The injection of bubbles could enhance the quality of drainage waters going to the Indian River Lagoon and also manage loads of pollutants,” said Guzmán.

Because water quality across both the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon is a major agricultural and public health issue, local water management is important because water draining from all the land in the region eventually flows to the estuary and lagoon. Water farming is used to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that moves into the estuary and lagoon. A second function of water farming is to retain rainfall water from drainage canals.

“Lands that were previously used for citrus production are filled with water from drainage canals and rainfall,” said Guzmán. “Eduart will study the suitability of ultrafine bubbles in water farms to manage pollutant loads in the Indian River Lagoon.”

Murcia said he wants to contribute to scientific research and help to ensure the availability of wholesome fresh fruit for consumers in the Americas. In the U.S., most shoppers purchase produce in supermarkets. In his native Colombia, family members and neighbors visit local farmers’ markets for their groceries, and they consume more fresh fruits and vegetables than meats.

“When I was young, I always looked forward to weekend visits to the local farmers’ market along with my family,” said Murcia.

The family would shop at nearby Corabastos, one of the largest open-air markets in downtown Bogotá. The market comprises vending clusters under white awnings dulled by years in the full sun. There, stacks of matte-colored plastic trays alternate with the town square’s brick partitions. Vegetable-colored square flags festoon its entrance. Farmers stack square and flat fruit crates into stepped tiers onto which they display their produce. Artisan baskets are chockfull with glossy, locally grown fruits – oranges, lemons, limes, mandarins, mangos, papaya and strawberries. Long rows of golden pineapples and piles of polished red apples balance the volume of the fresh food.

Vegetables piles of ruby-red, emerald-green and topaz-colored peppers are topped by crowns of broccoli, neatly arranged like precious jewels. On lower shelves sit root vegetables — potatoes, cubios and “chuguas” – inside cloth sacks. Moist soil clings to creases in the roots harvested the day before. A fruit unique only to Bogotá, Cape gooseberries, look like miniature yellow watermelons. The fruit is abundant at the market and is shipped internationally. Colombians call the gooseberries “uchuva.”
At the market, the Murcias would fill a cart full of produce, as would other families. Consuming large amounts of healthful fruits and vegetables is a part of their everyday life.“When we returned home, the whole family would eat the fruits and vegetables. Sometimes we mix different fruits like watermelon, papaya, banana, orange with ice, this is named ‘Salpicon,” said Murcia. “Also, we mix banana with cold milk and ginger — then we drink it like a smoothie in the U.S.”

Now in Florida, Murcia purchases his fruits and vegetables at Walmart, the market nearest his home in the IRREC dormitory. He buys spinach, squash, and whichever fruits are the freshest in the produce section. His salads are full meals, with equal amounts of fruit and vegetables. Oranges, his favorite, are a part of every meal.

“There must be sweetness, mild flavors, tart, and different textures,” said Murcia. “I choose what is fresh – in season now.”

Murcia said he plans to devote his entire career to fruit and vegetable production. He enjoys an outdoor work environment; he relishes the growers’ lifestyles and respects agricultural heritage in both Colombia and in the U.S. He strives to work with growers in the field and to be of help when they face production and water management issues. To Murcia, fruit and vegetables are perfect foods, and being a grower is the most desirous way to live. He said the internship in Guzmán’s laboratory is a fortuitous step in his career plan.

“My internship with the University of Florida is one of the most successful experiences of my life,” said Murcia. “To be part of one of the best global universities for agricultural engineering and to have an opportunity to work with distinguished researchers and academics is phenomenal.”

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