By Edwin L. Aguirre
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a group of UMass Lowell student researchers a “P3” grant to develop an innovative technology that would turn seafood waste into fertilizer. The funding is part of the EPA’s annual national student design competition for sustainability that focuses on three P’s – People, Prosperity and the Planet.
The UML group is among 31 teams from 30 colleges and universities across the country recognized by the EPA for their work in designing environmental solutions that will help improve quality of life, promote economic development and protect the environment. Each team will receive $15,000 under Phase I of the competition, and the researchers will use the funds to prove their concepts and to further test the technical and economic feasibility of their designs.
UMass Lowell won funding for its proposal to create safer, effective and nontoxic fertilizer from an abundant resource – in this case, the shell waste produced by processing crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters and shrimp. The group will develop a hydrothermal process to make chitin, a natural sugary substance derived from the hard outer shells of crustaceans, and turn it to renewable fertilizer.
Members of the team include chemical engineering doctoral students Melisa Nallar and Peng Yu, biology senior William Bizilj, chemical engineering sophomores Nicholas Tenaglia and Olivia Gauntlett and mechanical engineering sophomore Jonathan Aguilar.
“Winning the EPA grant gives us an opportunity to achieve our environmental goals and apply our classroom knowledge to a real-world problem,” says Nallar. “Our research is very important, because it is a pathway to the future we want for all.”
“The P3 award allows us to not only develop innovative technologies to simultaneously promote economic growth and global sustainability, but also to create a platform for students from different backgrounds to work together as a team,” says chemical engineering Asst. Prof. Hsi-Wu Wong, who is advising the students on the project. “I believe this is the best way to stimulate creative ideas.”
A ‘Greener’ Approach to Fertilizing
In New England, the lobster industry is a multimillion-dollar enterprise, with companies processing millions of pounds of lobster meat every year for the domestic and overseas markets.
According to the UML team, shell waste presents a significant economic and environmental challenge for the local processing community due to the cost and carbon footprint associated with transporting the waste to the landfill. At the same time, the use of petroleum-derived chemical fertilizers by farmers can be costly and can have adverse environmental impact due to the potential nitrate contamination of groundwater and the large amount of energy needed to produce ammonia, a key ingredient in making synthetic fertilizers.
Wong and his students hope that their hydrothermal reactor system can be used to address these issues and convert crustacean shell waste into high-value, nitrogen-rich “biochar” soil enhancer for agricultural applications.
“Our goal is to improve the lives and advance the economy of seafood processors and agricultural farmers by introducing a new source of revenue based on shell-derived fertilizers, as well as to help preserve the environment by reducing landfill and energy consumption,” Wong says.
This year’s P3 award winners showcased their projects at the National Sustainable Design Expo, held April 7 and 8 during the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.
The other P3 winners include teams from Cornell University, Georgia Tech, Purdue University, the University of California Davis and Riverside, the University of Texas, Arlington and the University of Washington. Their projects range from harnessing solar power to disinfect drinking water to using beetle larvae to break down Styrofoam and organic waste.
The teams will be eligible to compete for Phase II funding – with each grant worth up to $75,000 – later this spring. The EPA’s ultimate goal is to bring the technologies into the marketplace.