Published: Nov. 8, 2013

Putting harmful waste to good use

Phosphorous—ever present in human and animal waste—is a hidden danger lurking in bodies of water, from suburban Michigan ponds to lakes and streams across the nation. While it’s regulated in many states, runoff still occurs, often making water unsuitable for recreation and causing toxic algae growth.

But an MSU environmental engineer is working on a solution with multiple benefits. Partnering with a private-sector firm, associate professor Steven Safferman is developing a nano-filter capable of removing phosphorus from wastewater and capturing it so that it can be reused in fertilizer products.

The process that uses the filtering system, expected to be commercially available within two years, could also eliminate the need to mine for phosphorus, which while dangerous in large quantities, is essential for plant growth.

Since the supply of minable phosphorus is expected to become limited in the years ahead, that’s good timing—and good news for the environment.  

Steven Safferman

Steve SaffermanHe’s not a magician, but Steve Safferman knows a thing or two about transformation.

Actually an MSU environmental engineer, Safferman’s research focuses on finding ways to turn waste products into something useful in order to protect the environment.

“Perhaps this stems from my interest and fascination with ecological cycles and how everything on Earth participates in a cycle,” he says. “We as engineers research, design, construct, educate, and operate these cycles to sustain health and the environment, looking at what nature does and imitating it as best we can.”

Currently, Safferman and his team are developing methods of removing phosphorous from wastewater. He explains that while phosphorus is a necessary part of the environment and essential for plant growth, it is dangerous in large amounts and has a negative impact on the health and safety of lakes and streams.

Partnering with a private sector company, Safferman and his team are testing a new kind of filter that removes phosphorous and reclaims it for other uses. That’s where the magic comes in. The researchers are finding ways to reuse the phosphorus to make  fertilizer.

“It’s exciting when we’re trying to solve an environmental problem. We’re coming up with some new ideas that look like they are going to be efficient and effective,” says Safferman, who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before moving into higher education. “If we can engineer systems to protect the environment while at the same time recovering a valuable resource, then everyone wins.”

Despite the occasional necessity of wading in pools of wastewater, often in inclement weather conditions, Safferman considers his work rewarding, even fun.

“It’s so great to see something come to fruition that can really help the environment, as well as provide a renewable resource that was not renewable in the past,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to contribute to society in some way. After working all day and sometimes half the night, I want to feel good about the outcomes that result.”

Field Note: Getting My Feet Wet

Younsuk DongYounsuk Dong is a recent MSU biosystems engineering graduate and current graduate student who worked with Safferman on the research. 

I have been working with Dr. Steve Safferman for about a year and a half. I started as a volunteer for the Michigan Biomass Inventory project and, after one semester, was hired by Dr. Safferman. While working for the project, I learned how to communicate with group members and clients, and about project management, time management, and work distribution.

Although I am an undergraduate student, Dr. Safferman gave me the opportunity to manage the phosphorus project. Working in the phosphorus lab, we collect wastewater once a week from the River Rock site and operate bench scale reactors 24/7. As the leader of this project, I check bench scale reactors twice a day to make sure they are functioning properly. We collect effluent samples from the bench scale reactors and test chemical oxygen demand and total phosphorus every week.

In the past, I never thought that I would like to do research, but I enjoy it a lot, because no one knows how it will come out. I am glad that I finally found what I enjoy and what I want to do in my future.

My long-term goal is to go to Africa and build water purification systems. Water quality in Africa is very poor and it can increase the death rate. In water, phosphorus is significant and can result in eutrophication. This phosphorus project helps me to reach my long-term goal. This is a great opportunity to build research skills, study phosphorus, and accumulate experiences.


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