Georgia Tech’s $26 Million Partnership with National Science Foundation to Transform Fertilizer Production


Georgia Tech is part of CASFER, a collaborative effort between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and five universities.

Paul Cole (School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering) and Martha Hatzel (George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering) lead the CASFER effort at Georgia Tech.

Paul Cole (School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering) and Martha Hatzel (George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering) lead the CASFER effort at Georgia Tech.

Thanks to efforts to combat climate change, many have heard the term “closing the carbon cycle” – a global effort to reduce the harmful effects of carbon dioxide on the planet by turning carbon dioxide into something useful. Another environmental challenge is related to nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide. Now, an ambitious plan to close the nitrogen cycle is underway, and it has the potential to transform agriculture in the US and around the world.

Georgia Institute of Technology’s NSF Engineering Research Center (NSF-ERC) will be part of CASFER along with four other universities. With an initial grant of $26 million from NSF, CASFER seeks to transform the US from a nitrogen cycle pollutant to a nitrogen circular economy by developing new technologies and programs to capture decarbonized nitrogen-based fertilizers (NBFs). Georgia Tech is joined by Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Case Western Reserve University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas Tech University, which will lead the effort and serve as CASFER headquarters.

Nitrogen is used in many commercial applications, but one of the most important uses is in NBFs for food development. NBFs are put into fields, but most of them are not used – 80% are washed away and wasted, ending up as pollutants in watersheds. With NSF support, this group of universities will try to recover and reuse the primary nitrogen compounds in compost.

“By removing pollutants from water and making them usable, we’re taking the negative and doing the positive,” said Regents Professor and Thomas L. Gossage Chair in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (Paul Cole). ChBE) and co-leader of the CASFER effort at Georgia Tech, with Martha Hatzel, associate professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “This process reduces pollution and reduces farming costs.”

CASFER has three areas of focus to achieve its goals. The first involves measuring and analyzing data to identify new opportunities and locations for collecting wasted compost, and determining how the compost will actually affect individual environments.

The second area – the focus of Kohl and Hatzell – is the collection and separation of nitrogen compounds from three types of environments where they are often seen: farms, livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants. They develop special separation methods to extract nitrogen pollution from different environments, create new types of polymer membranes to identify compounds and assemble solutions for future use. The work will begin in the laboratories at Georgia Tech, but later the team will build test beds – mobile laboratories the size of small trailers – to test the separation methods on site.

“All of our separation technologies will be modular, electric and mostly carbonized,” Hatzel said. “Our overall goal is to develop processes that recover new or used fertilizers from waste at the same or lower cost than traditional chemical manufacturing processes.”

The third area is converting stock solutions into useful compost. Humans have been producing fertilizer the same way for over 100 years, using an expensive chemical process that requires natural gas – a shortage in supply. CASFER researchers develop conversion methods to create new fertilizers.

“One of the strengths of NSF’s Engineering Research Centers is the ability to bring together interdisciplinary academic teams through cross-disciplinary research to identify new approaches to thorny societal challenges,” said Susan Margulies, NSF’s Assistant Director for Engineering. “Through their unique testbeds and industry partners, the centers create and translate effective and sustainable solutions.”

CASFER is poised to bring dramatic changes to the agriculture industry. Since the Engineering Research Centers program began in 1985, NSF has awarded fewer than 100 grants to open ERCs designed to foster innovation and collaboration among industry leaders, government agencies, and higher education institutions.

For decades, NSF’s engineering research centers have transformed technologies and fostered innovation in the United States through bold research, collaborative partnerships, and a deep commitment to inclusion and expansion,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “The new NSF centers continue a legacy of life-improving impact across the country.”

Looking to the future, universities will initiate workforce development efforts such as training and education to prepare a new generation of farmers and scientists in the nitrogen circular economy.

Georgia Tech researchers involved in the grant include Kohl (joint trust leader), Andrew Medford and Joseph Scott from ChBE; Peter Hesketh (Co-Principal) and Hatzell (Principal/Co-PI) from The Woodruff School; Mary-Lynn Relf from the School of Materials Science and Engineering; Lizanne DeStefano (EWD Lead) from CEISMC; and Jie Xu and Milad Navaei from the Georgia Tech Research Institute.


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