Engineer nerds

Jason Trembly (left); Damilola Daramola (right). Provided photo.

Two Ohio University Russ College of Engineering and Technology researchers were awarded a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to explore the possibility of turning human waste into fertilizer, the school announced Monday.

The study will explore whether municipal wastewater treatment facilities like the Athens Wastewater Treatment Plant could use electrochemical technology to recover fertilizer ingredients from human waste.

Jason Trembly, Russ Professor of mechanical engineering and director of OU's Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment, will lead the project with Damilola Daramola, assistant professor of chemical and biochemical engineering and assistant director for research at the institute. The research team includes Jared DeForest, professor of environmental and plant biology in OU's College of Arts and Sciences, as well as the Athens Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Columbus Wastewater Treatment Plant-Southerly Facility.

“Waste materials found in wastewater can be converted into other, more useful things,” Daramola said.

The project aims to show that creating fertilizer from human waste will reduce energy use at wastewater treatment plants and in the production of fertilizer, which would lower costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re running out of phosphorus, which is an important material to help us produce crops, and the best place for us to get it is through wastewater,” DeForest said. “So this could be a way to close the loop — eliminating pollution in our waterways, while recycling these nutrients into fertilizer used to sustain our crops.”

In 2016, Trembly began developing an electrochemical-based method to recover nitrogen and phosphorus from animal waste,  as a reusable fertilizer material to prevent watershed pollution and increase nutrient recycling, the release said. When Daramola joined the institute in 2019, the two began to collaborate how the technology could be applied to other industries.

Daramola and Trembly first will scale up the technology for wastewater treatment facilities, testing it on fluid that has a similar composition to wastewater and assessing performance both technically and economically. Then they will work with DeForest to test the resulting fertilizer in actual soil for viability and toxicity.

DeForest will evaluate whether the fertilizer made can be sustained as a commercial product and  look at how it affects plant growth and soil health in general. That will help him recommend fertilizer dosage.

Wastewater treatment plants use digesters to capture solids from wastewater, sending the liquid portion of the stream back into the main treatment facility. The liquid streams contain high levels of plant nutrients that have to be reduced, which requires both energy and chemicals. That portion of the process typically accounts for 60% of the energy consumed overall in the facility, the release said.

Researchers hope that applying the new technology to this recycle stream can mitigate the impact on the overall plant, since reducing nutrients would lower energy and chemical consumption.

This is the sixth nationally competitive research award the institute has received in the past four years, the release said.

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