Innovative Nano Technology System Seeks to Spur Phosphorus Removal

Innovative Nano Technology System Seeks to Spur Phosphorus Removal
Steven Safferman, a Michigan State University researcher, is working with a Columbus, Ohio, company to develop a process that harnesses nano-technology to capture phosphorus in wastewater removal. The system would benefit the wastewater industry and provide an economical way to obtain phosphorus for fertilizer.

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A Michigan State University (MSU) researcher is working with a Columbus, Ohio, company to develop a process that harnesses nano-technology to capture phosphorus in wastewater removal. The system would benefit the wastewater industry and provide an economical way to obtain phosphorus for fertilizer. 

Launched 12 years ago in conjunction with MetaMateria Technologies (Columbus, Ohio), much of the research has come together in the last five years, according to Steven Safferman, the MSU associate professor who has been testing the media for its application to domestic wastewater since the concept was first envisioned. The work is in the final stages of development, with participants exploring environmental applications — including wastewater treatment — and commercial viability. 

“We’ve been working with MetaMateria on developing the media and how to use it effectively,” explains Safferman, who’s taught in MSU’s Department of Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering for eight years. “Right now, we have a pilot demonstration at a 150-house subdivision in Michigan, and MetaMateria has tests at industrial sites and at a lake in Ohio that had been impacted by a lot of algae because of phosphorus.” 

Safferman describes the media as an iron substrate: waste-iron powder that’s “glued” together and then through a proprietary process made extremely porous. The structure has a large surface area filled with “tunnels and caves,” which give it high porosity. MetaMateria, which specializes in nano-technology systems for several different applications, coats the surface with nano particles of iron. 

The phosphorus in the water mixes chemically with the iron to form iron phosphate, which sticks to the surface of the media. It can be removed with a caustic solution and used as a fertilizer and, based on laboratory studies, the media can be regenerated at least five times without a problem. While phosphorus is a problem in wastewater and stormwater discharge because it feeds algae, demand for it as an agricultural fertilizer continues to grow. As researchers have refined the media, they’ve found that the cost of removing and recovering phosphorus that way has the potential to be a fraction of what it would be to mine phosphorus for fertilizer. 

“This is not a filtration system, although it looks and operates like one in that it’s a column that the water passes through,” says Safferman, who began his career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s more like a contact bed. In fact, we wouldn’t want it to become a filter because it would clog. We’ve operated the media for 600 days without significant clogging. Some of the development steps we’re looking at are the size of the particles, the most effective surface area and equations to predict performance. We’re also looking at how to manufacture it, how to adjust the porosity and how to nano-coat it in the most cost-effective way possible. These are big challenges.” 

Although testing continues, Safferman says the new system has been studied extensively for the onsite wastewater industry and appears to be very effective. This research was largely funded by a competitively awarded National Science Foundation Small Business Innovative Research Grant to MetaMateria. MetaMateria Technologies is also doing pilot testing of the system for other applications including at a small municipal facility in Ohio and food processor, and should have results in the next few months. 

“The platform is very well suited to removing phosphorus, but we’re eager to try it with other pollutants,” says Safferman, who taught at the University of Dayton for 11 years before joining Michigan State. “It’s been interesting to go from discussions with MetaMateria to actually testing and going through the iterations. We’ve tried a lot and now we want to make it work commercially.

How do you think this cutting-edge technology could benefit the clean-water industry? Leave a comment below.



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