This project will advance the frontier of microalgal biotechnology through the integration of experimentation, modeling, and quantitative sustainable design (QSD), and will leverage this framework to improve the education and retention of a diverse student body in environmental engineering. Research will pursue energy-positive nutrient recovery from wastewater with microalgae, and will focus on overcoming critical knowledge gaps that limit our ability to design mixed community microalgal bioprocesses that might bring this transformation within reach. Objectives of the research are (i) to elucidate the mechanisms governing microalgal bioprocess performance across a landscape of possible designs, and (ii) to establish a path forward for energy positive nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) recovery from wastewater. Experiments with mixed communities of microalgae treating wastewater will be coupled with modeling to advance understanding of how key design parameters influence process performance, microbial community structure and function. These findings will be integrated in a QSD framework (including life cycle assessment, life cycle costing, sensitivity and uncertainty analyses) to identify technology targets and chart a path forward for microalgal wastewater biotechnology development.
Research efforts will be integrated with an education plan designed (i) to increase the intrinsic motivation of minority and female students in introductory- and advanced-level environmental engineering courses through an aspirational resource management framework, and (ii) to increase awareness of and ability to navigate trade-offs among environmental, economic, and performance sustainability criteria for engineered systems. These goals will be achieved by developing two online course modules that will be designed, tested, and deployed at UIUC, Bucknell University, and Parkland College. Modules will be designed through cognitive labs and will include external, independent formative and summative evaluations.
Current approaches to nutrient management at wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) use costly, energy-intensive processes that rely on bacteria and chemicals to remove nitrogen and phosphorus. This research will re-envision nutrient management at WWTPs by utilizing native microalgae for energy-positive biological nutrient recovery. In addition to increasing the embodied chemical energy of wastewater more than 2-fold, this approach may also advance the limit of technology by overcoming the critical barrier of dissolved organic nitrogen, a form of N that is often unable to be removed by existing nutrient removal processes but which can be rapidly assimilated by microalgae. The core concept of the research plan is microalgal technology development can be expedited through integration of experimentation, modeling, and QSD. This integrated process will elucidate molecular-scale barriers to systems-scale sustainability and seek to overcome them through process design. This approach will enable the setting of targets for technology performance, and identify critical areas for future research to achieve long-term adoption and sustainability. The research activities will be coupled with educational activities to increase the attraction and retention of underrepresented students by focusing on aspirational outcomes of environmental engineering and developing a new platform for education in sustainable design.