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CoE Faculty Member Leads Finalist Team for George Barley Water Prize Preserving Freshwater Ecosystems by Removing Phosphorus

A team led by a faculty member from the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering has been selected as one of the top 15 finalists for the prestigious $10 million prize, for their work on preserving freshwater ecosystems by removing phosphorus.

Around the world, phosphorus is destroying freshwater bodies through nutrient pollution – the process where too many nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, enter bodies of water and, acting like fertilizer, cause excessive growth of algae. These algae can be toxic, and jeopardize freshwater ecosystems. A team led by a CoE faculty member has developed a technology that removes phosphorus from surface waters. Their technology was chosen, along with 14 other teams’, for consideration for the $10 million George Barley Water Prize.

The George Barley Water Prize, presented by The Everglades Foundation, will award an unprecedented $10 million to the researcher or team who develops a cost-effective process for recovering phosphorus while yielding clean water from natural water bodies – on a globally applicable scale. The largest water prize of its kind, it aims to help uncover, test and ultimately invest in new technologies that solve the global issue of excess phosphorus in freshwater – which plagues the Everglades, as well as many freshwater bodies around the world.

Sung Hee Joo, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the CoE’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, leads the team. Helene Solo-Gabriele (BSCE ’87, MSCE ’88), professor and associate dean for research in the department, is a member of the team, as is CoE PhD student Carla Garcia (MS ’13). Larry Brand, a marine ecology professor at UM, also is a member of the team, as are former CoE mechanical engineering faculty member Landon Grace and Lee Blaney of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

As the lead project investigator, Joo will present her team’s solution for removing phosphorus from surface waters at the Global Freshwater Crisis: Impact and Innovation event on March 22 in West Palm Beach. Media will be at the event to conduct interviews about the projects. The Everglades Foundation also will share a video showing the team and their work, along with a text summary of each of the 15 finalists’ solutions, in its newsletter and on its website.

Cost-Effective, Scalable Solution

The team, with its material scientist, environmental engineer, ecologist and environmental chemist, is proposing a passive system with three tiers to combat algae caused by excessive iron-based phosphorus. The solution relies on:

  1. Vegetation planted near the water, known as riparian buffer vegetation zones
  2. Novel high-iron waste materials from foundries, used in a polishing step for removal and recovery of phosphorus (reedbed type systems)
  3. Plants for a final purification step – stripping all contaminants, metals, lingering low-level phosphorus and other pollutants from the water

“We envision a natural-flow, gravity-fed, three-tiered treatment process, installed throughout the riparian areas that surround the water body to be protected,” Joo explains. “For the Everglades, this system would be located along the Kissimmee River and the outflow portions of the stormwater treatment areas. It would be used to augment the phosphate removal provided by existing storm water management areas.”

Runoff water will be treated in the three-tier system before it reaches the areas to be protected, in a passive system that surrounds the areas. The tiers will include planted vegetation, use of a polishing step – a secondary treatment process – and a final purification step that uses plants to strip out not only phosphorus, but also iron and other metals.

The proposed approach is innovative in its use of steel waste industrial byproducts with high iron content (supplied by U.S. Foundry), including iron filings, during the polishing step. The phosphorus also can be recovered from the waste iron.

The materials in this solution are extremely cost-effective, since the waste product does not need to be replaced, and no chemicals are involved.

Joo’s team has demonstrated that the process effectively treats low levels of phosphorus, but they have not yet scaled up to large water flows. They believe that the solution can be readily scaled up, in collaboration with U.S. Foundry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The prize money would go towards scaling up to Everglades-level conditions.

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