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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

2021 iSEE seed funds support nutrient recycling effort led by Su

Xiao Su

Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Xiao Su received 2021 seed funding from the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to establish a fully renewable system to recover excess nitrogen from polluted waterways for upcycling into value-added products like ammonia. The goal of the project is to encourage sustainable land management and energy-efficient nutrient reuse. 

While agricultural fertilizers can optimize food crop production in the U.S., excess nitrogen runoff from these products threatens the health of the country’s freshwater systems. In Midwestern watersheds (e.g., the Illinois River Basin), elevated chemical concentrations have led to pollution and dangerous algal blooms. 

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Professor Xiao Su leads a project supported by 2021 iSEE seed funding to establish a fully renewable system to recover excess nitrogen from polluted waterways for upcycling into value-added products. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

But removing nitrogen from waterways — from the Chicago River to the Mississippi — poses extreme scientific and environmental challenges. To remedy this growing concern, an Illinois research team is fashioning an environmentally sustainable system to not only capture excess nitrogen from contaminated water but to also upcycle that nitrogen for reuse in products like ammonia, which is itself an agricultural fertilizer.

Su will lead the project called “Integrated Electrochemical Separation Technologies for Nutrient Recovery and Valorization.” The team also includes professors R. Mohan Sankaran, nuclear, plasma & radiological engineering; Prashant K. Jain, chemistry; and Xinlei Wang, agricultural and biological engineering. 

“Our team is excited to develop and integrate new electrochemical processes—potentially driven by renewable solar energy—to recover nitrogen from water and valorize it into useful chemicals such as ammonia, that can then be re-applied for agricultural use,” Su said. “We expect our work to lead to modular water purification and nutrient recovery approaches that can be used at remote locations.”

To develop a fully renewable-energy-based process to recover and use nitrogen, the team will take a three-pronged approach. 

First, they plan to develop an electrically powered nitrogen-selective separation process to remove these contaminants from polluted water. 

Next, the nitrate will be upcycled into ammonia. While current methods for ammonia production are energy-intensive and contribute 3% of global carbon emissions, this team’s method will use renewable electricity.

The final step in this process is a techno-economic and life cycle analysis, to ensure the value and holistic sustainability of the nitrogen removal and ammonia production process as a whole. 

Ultimately, this combination of nitrogen recovery and use will promote sustainable land stewardship, strengthen community resilience to nitrogen runoff, and encourage energy-efficient nutrient recycling on a larger scale.

This project is one of two new interdisciplinary research initiatives that the 2021 iSEE seed funding will support along with one new  Campus as a Living Laboratory (CALL) project. These projects were chosen because of their innovation, commitment to collaboration, and initiative to tackle real issues. With iSEE support, the projects will collect preliminary data and expand research capacity to ultimately secure future funding from major external granting agencies in the federal, foundation, and private sectors. 

“With the climate emergency at our doorstep, scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois continue to push the frontiers of knowledge about what our future might look like and how we can improve it,” iSEE Acting Associate Director for Research Jeremy Guest said. “Now more than ever, it’s critical that we leverage our resources — our state-of-the-art facilities, innovative equipment, and diverse perspectives — to overcome this deeply complex and interdisciplinary challenge with holistic solutions and a deeper understanding of nature-society interactions.” 

This article is based on iSEE’s original announcement.

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