Cities and farms discharge nitrogen-rich compounds into receiving waters, resulting in pollution of the environment. Current technologies to remove nitrogen-rich compounds from water are costly and energy intensive, resulting in great economic and environmental costs to society. The difficulty in addressing this waste problem is why the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls managing the nitrogen cycle one of the “Grand Challenges” of engineering. The goal of this project is to develop new scientific knowledge about how to concentrate, separate, and transform waste nitrogen-rich compounds into animal feed and beneficial products. This outcome will be achieved through cross-disciplinary biology and chemistry research to remove nitrogen-rich compounds from waste streams and to transform them into chemicals that can be used for the production of useful products. The environmental impact and potential for new businesses based on these new technologies will be evaluated. Successful completion of this work will prevent nitrogen pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide a new sustainable feedstock for chemicals. Other benefits from this project will include workforce development and educational outreach to underrepresented grade-school students. These efforts will promote increased diversity in STEM fields and improve scientific literacy of the general public.

Nitrogen-rich waste streams are produced in large quantities from urban and agricultural settings and impose severe environmental burdens to human and ecological health. Conventional nitrogen management treats nitrogen-rich compounds as waste rather than as a recoverable resource. This approach is costly, energy intensive, and results in the release of large amounts of the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N2O). The goal of this research project is to develop novel technological approaches to convert nitrogen-rich waste into high-value products beyond fertilizers. This research project has the objectives to: (1) Engineer bacteria to bioconcentrate dilute waste nitrogen, which then can be used as animal feed or for bio-based chemical production; (2) Develop a microbial bioprocess for simultaneous nitrogen removal and nitrous oxide recovery for use as a green oxidant; (3) Design catalytic processes to capture and activate dilute nitrous oxide streams for the selective oxidation of methane; and (4) Identify optimal products, feedstocks, and technology combinations to satisfy diverse stakeholder needs and cost and sustainability objectives. The novelty of the approach lies in the energy-efficient recovery of nitrogen as a building block for bio-based chemicals and animal feed. This approach integrates expertise across chemical, biological, and environmental engineering disciplines. Successful completion of this research will benefit society through sustainable waste nitrogen management and the mitigation of nitrous oxide emissions. Additional benefits will result from educational and industrial outreach. Such efforts include outreach to underrepresented grade-school students in a climate action project. Integrative learning experiences with industrial partners and graduate student exchanges between research groups will enhance the development of a future workforce to address grand challenges in sustainability.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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Northwestern University at Chicago
United States
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