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Fertilizer Innovation Aims to Reduce Carbon Footprint

UMass Lowell Students Win Grants, Entry to National Entrepreneurship Program

Green Fertilizer student team Photo by Ed Brennen
UMass Lowell students have won praise and early-stage support for their innovation, Green Fertilizer. Here, Ruairi O’Mahony, far left, presents team members, from left, Sam Alpert, Benard Tabu and Visal Veng, with funding to advance their innovation. 


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Imagine a low-cost fertilizer made from solar power and water that does not emit greenhouse gas and could be used in developing nations to overcome food insecurity.
Green Fertilizer, an innovation designed and piloted by UMass Lowell students Sam Alpert, Benard Tabu and Visal Veng, is on its way to being just that. Now a step closer, the product and the team behind it are being championed by VentureWell, which has awarded the students $20,000 in funding to advance their technology.
Alpert of Needham, and Tabu and Veng, of Lowell, who are all pursuing doctoral degrees in energy engineering, are enrolled in the organization’s Propel workshop, which will provide them with the resources, mentoring and networking opportunities essential to bringing the innovation to the marketplace. 
“Green Fertilizer is a technology that produces fertilizer on-demand and onsite using solar power. The technology is modular and offers decentralized production that is benign to the environment, as it does not emit greenhouse gases,” said Tabu, a native of Uganda, where he said fertilizer is in short supply due to its high cost. He went on to explain, being able to produce fertilizer where it will be used will cut down on costs for local farmers and lead to a more bountiful harvest.
The Green Fertilizer team is one of only 31 across the country chosen to participate in the Propel program. VentureWell selected the UMass Lowell students based on the potential for their product to have a significant positive social, health or environmental impact, according to the organization. 
Thinking about his homeland and the need to solve its agricultural challenges, Tabu and his classmates Alpert and Veng pursued their idea as participants in UMass Lowell’s Rist DifferenceMaker Institute entrepreneurship program. Since its launch in 2012, DifferenceMaker participants have raised $7 million to support 40 companies and have filed or been issued 14 patents. 
In DifferenceMaker, the Green Fertilizer team worked with UMass Lowell mechanical engineering Associate Professor Juan Pablo Trelles and electrical engineering Associate Professor Cordula Schmid to develop the product. Their efforts won praise and $4,000 from the program, which honored the team in 2021 with its Commitment to a Sustainable Environment award. 
With the additional support of an $8,000 grant from the university’s Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy, the team began refining the fertilizer system last year at UMass Lowell’s O’Leary Library Green Roof and Rist Urban Agriculture Greenhouse and Farm, in partnership with Mill City Grows. 
“The Green Fertilizer team was selected from the university’s Sustainability Encouragement and Enrichment Development (SEED) Fund based on the technical strengths of their project and the students’ continuous refinement of the technology,” said Ruairi O’Mahony, the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy’s executive director. “Innovation support through Rist DifferenceMakers and then practical, community-based implementation through the Rist institute, are hallmarks of the unique UMass Lowell approach.” 
UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe.