MSU AgBioResearch scientist helps devise method to remove phosphorus from wastewater

Steve Safferman is part of a team developing a new method of removing phosphorus from wastewater.

Steve Safferman

Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch  scientist Steve Safferman is part of a team developing a new method of removing phosphorus from our wastewater. This is a problem seriously affecting lakes and streams across the country.

In addition, Safferman, an associate professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, and colleagues at MetaMateria Technologies, based in Columbus, Ohio, are devising a cost-effective way of recovering the phosphorus, which then can be reused for fertilizer products.

Within the past 50 years, eutrophication — the over enrichment of water by nutrients such as phosphorus — has emerged as one of the leading causes of water quality impairment.  Although the use of phosphorus is regulated in items such as detergents and fertilizer in many states, including Michigan, it remains a critical environmental problem, in part because of its presence in human and animal wastes. Discharge from human and industrial wastewater and runoff into lakes and streams can cause eutrophication, which causes excessive algae growth, makes the water unsuitable for recreational purposes and reduces fish populations.

The research team has figured out how to produce a medium enhanced with nanoparticles composed of iron that can efficiently remove significant amounts of phosphorous from water.

“Phosphorous that is dissolved in wastewater, like sugar in water, is hard to remove,” Safferman said. “We found that a nano-medium made with waste iron can efficiently absorb it, making it a solid that can be easily and efficiently removed and recovered for beneficial reuse.”

Safferman said that there are indications that their method of phosphorus retrieval is much more cost-effective than processing phosphate rock.

“Research suggests that it is significantly cheaper to recover phosphorus this way. So why would you mine phosphorus?” he asked. “And, at the same time, it’s helping to solve a serious environmental problem.”

The material should be commercially available for use within two years, said J. Richard Schorr, MetaMateria CEO.

“Phosphorus is a finite material,” Schorr said. “Analyses show that the supply of phosphorous may become limited within the next 25 to 50 years. This is an economical way to harvest and recycle phosphorus.”

This research is funded, in part, by a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovative Research Grant.

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