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Novel Sewage Treatment System Removes up to 70% of Nitrogen That Would Otherwise Be Discarded Into Nature

Carly Russell

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 A new type of biofilm reactor adapted to Brazilian conditions and using polyurethane foam to lower costs can reduce the amount of nitrogen compounds in wastewater by as much as 70%, according to an article in Environmental Technology. The researchers who conducted the study developed a mathematical model to analyze and predict the nitrogen removal mechanism. The biofilm comprised bacteria that converted nitrogen compounds into nitrogen gas, which is environmentally harmless. 

 A new type of biofilm reactor adapted to Brazilian conditions and using polyurethane foam to lower costs can reduce the amount of nitrogen compounds in wastewater by as much as 70%, according to an article in Environmental Technology. The researchers who conducted the study developed a mathematical model to analyze and predict the nitrogen removal mechanism. The biofilm comprised bacteria that converted nitrogen compounds into nitrogen gas, which is environmentally harmless. 

The study was led by Bruno Garcia Silva during his doctoral research in hydraulic engineering and sanitation at the University São Paulo (USP) in Brazil, with Eugenio Foresti as thesis advisor. Foresti is a professor at the São Carlos School of Engineering (EESC-USP). The study was supported by FAPESP

The article was one of the results of the Thematic Project “Biorefinery concept applied to biological wastewater treatment plants: environmental pollution control coupled with material and energy recovery”, for which Marcelo Zaiat, also a professor at EESC-USP, was principal investigator. Researchers at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and Mauá Institute of Technology (IMT) collaborated. 

“Nitrogen removal is still achieved by only a few wastewater treatment plants in Brazil, whereas it’s regularly performed in Europe and the United States,” Garcia told Agência FAPESP. “The idea is to adapt [the necessary infrastructure] to our reality. The usual method here is based on anaerobic reactors, which produce effluent with low levels of organic matter, making nitrogen removal difficult.”

Removal of nitrogen compounds (nitrite, nitrate and ammonia, among others) from both domestic sewage and industrial wastewater is essential because they contaminate surface water (lakes, reservoirs and streams) as well as aquifers and other ground water, letting the growth of bacteria, algae and plants spiral out of control in a process known as eutrophication.

Furthermore, consumption of water contaminated by nitrate can lead to diseases such as infant methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), which causes headache, dizziness, fatigue, lethargy, breathlessness, and neurological alterations such as seizures and coma in severe cases. 

“When algal blooms proliferate, as seen in reservoirs like Billings [one of the main water sources for São Paulo], for example, lack of oxygen in the water leads to the death of fish and loss of water supply as well as leisure areas. It’s very hard to remove algae from reservoirs,” said Foresti, who leads the group.

Differentiators

One of the key differentiators of this new reactor model is the biofilm formed by a biological process in which bacteria create a film on the polyurethane foam. Another is the configuration of the equipment to permit what the researchers call counterdiffusion, where oxygen is introduced on the opposite side to the contaminants.

“Oxygen is transported into the foam because this ensures that it remains only where it’s needed for the reaction to occur,” Garcia explained. “We don’t want oxygen to come into contact with organic matter all the time. If it did, the bacteria would use up all the oxygen to break it down and nothing would be left over to consume the nitrite and nitrate. So we insert the oxygen on the other side of the biofilm. The goal is for the organic matter that reaches the biofilm on the opposite side to be oxidized not just by oxygen but also by nitrite and nitrate.” 

When oxygen does not enter the reactor, the ammonia remains unchanged. When ammonia enters the site of the reactor with oxygen input, however, it is converted into nitrite and nitrate. “The only way out is via the biofilm, and the compounds cross this barrier by diffusion in the opposite direction to the organic matter. Their collision with organic matter in contraflow creates optimal conditions for nitrite and nitrate removal because there’s no longer any oxygen and there’s enough organic matter for denitrification,” Garcia said.

Foresti explained that in Brazil, anaerobic reactors (which break down organic matter using bacteria that do not require oxygen to survive) are increasingly being used by municipal wastewater treatment companies because of the predominant climate, which is warmer than that of the northern hemisphere. Bacteria decompose organic matter faster in warm weather. In Europe and the US, where mean temperatures are lower, the process is different. The organic matter present in the liquid phase after sludge removal is oxidized aerobically (by oxygen). 

In Brazil, however, nitrogen compounds are not completely removed for cost reasons and are directly released into nature. The new type of reactor developed by the researchers is designed to add a second, easier and cheaper, stage to wastewater treatment, for development with future technologies and partnerships.

Scholarship for research in the US 

Researchers who work at the laboratory of Robert Nerenberg, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the US, collaborated with Garcia, who was there as a visiting researcher in 2019-20 with FAPESP’s support.  

“The difference between my project and theirs is that instead of polyurethane foam they use a semipermeable membrane, which resembles a drinking straw full of air. When this capillary comes into contact with water, it lets through oxygen but not water, so that the biofilm sticks to the surface and grows on it. In other words, oxygen is supplied to the bacteria through the walls of this thin tube. The oxygen comes out, and the water provides ammonia and organic matter. It’s the same system as counterdiffusion, except that the material we use is simpler and cheaper,” Garcia said.

“The bacteria grow on the surface to form a biofilm, but it’s not a filter properly speaking because it doesn’t offer mechanical resistance to the passage of particles. What the reactor does in fact is serve as a support for the bacteria to grow and consume soluble organic matter and nitrogen compounds.”

Next steps

According to Foresti, the new configuration of the reactor is inspiring further research by the group. In a program of cooperation between the São Paulo State Basic Sanitation Corporation (SABESP) and FAPESP, the researchers plan to test the new model with real sewage that has been through an aerobic reactor in the treatment plant operated by SAAE, the municipal sanitation service in São Carlos. Researchers at UFSCar and IMT are also part of the program and will develop other systems to be tested.

“Bruno’s research is the first to use counterdiffusion in this way here in Brazil,” Foresti said. “It’s proof of concept for synthetic wastewater. The efficiency found in this reactor configuration was greatly superior to that observed in previous research, but we still need to evaluate several factors.” 

The new configuration has been tested in the laboratory. Efficiency will be measured in further projects, as it is not possible to predict how the equipment will behave when processing large volumes of effluent, and the system needs to be tested with actual domestic sewage and industrial wastewater. Hitherto it has been tested only on samples of synthetic waste prepared by the researchers themselves.

“We may have to improve the design and geometry,” Garcia said. “How can the design be optimized to obtain the largest optimal surface area per reactor volume so as to lower the cost? The study provides a basis, a foundation on which we can go on thinking about the process and the mathematical tool.”         

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About São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)

The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting scientific research in all fields of knowledge by awarding scholarships, fellowships and grants to investigators linked with higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. FAPESP is aware that the very best research can only be done by working with the best researchers internationally. Therefore, it has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education, private companies, and research organizations in other countries known for the quality of their research and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration. You can learn more about FAPESP at www.fapesp.br/en and visit FAPESP news agency at www.agencia.fapesp.br/en to keep updated with the latest scientific breakthroughs FAPESP helps achieve through its many programs, awards and research centers. You may also subscribe to FAPESP news agency at http://agencia.fapesp.br/subscribe.

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Original Article: bioengineer.org

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UNLV Research: No, the Human Brain Did Not Shrink 3,000 Years Ago

Carly Russell

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Did the 12th century B.C.E. — a time when humans were forging great empires and developing new forms of written text — coincide with an evolutionary reduction in brain size? Think again, says a UNLV-led team of researchers who refute a hypothesis that’s growing increasingly popular among the science community.

Did the 12th century B.C.E. — a time when humans were forging great empires and developing new forms of written text — coincide with an evolutionary reduction in brain size? Think again, says a UNLV-led team of researchers who refute a hypothesis that’s growing increasingly popular among the science community.

Last year, a group of scientists made headlines when they concluded that the human brain shrank during the transition to modern urban societies about 3,000 years ago because, they said, our ancestors’ ability to store information externally in social groups decreased our need to maintain large brains. Their hypothesis, which explored decades-old ideas on the evolutionary reduction of modern human brain size, was based on a comparison to evolutionary patterns seen in ant colonies.

Not so fast, said UNLV anthropologist Brian Villmoare and Liverpool John Moores University scientist Mark Grabowski.

In a new paper published last week in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the UNLV-led team  analyzed the dataset that the research group from last year’s study used and dismissed their findings.

“We were struck by the implications of a substantial reduction in modern human brain size at roughly 3,000 years ago, during an era of many important innovations and historical events — the appearance of Egypt’s New Kingdom, the development of Chinese script, the Trojan War, and the emergence of the Olmec civilization, among many others,” Villmoare said. 

“We re-examined the dataset from DeSilva et al. and found that human brain size has not changed in 30,000 years, and probably not in 300,000 years,” Villmoare said. “In fact, based on this dataset, we can identify no reduction in brain size in modern humans over any time-period since the origins of our species.” 

Key Takeaways

The UNLV research team questioned several of the hypotheses that DeSilva et. al gleaned from a dataset of nearly 1,000 early human fossil and museum specimens, including:

The UNLV team says the rise of agriculture and complex societies occurred at different times around the globe — meaning there should be variation in timing of skull changes seen in different populations. However, DeSilva’s dataset sampled only 23 crania from the timeframe critical to the brain shrinkage hypothesis and lumped together specimens from locations including England, China, Mali, and Algeria. 
The dataset is heavily skewed because more than half of the 987 skulls examined represent only the last 100 years of a 9.8-million-year span of time — and therefore don’t give scientists a good idea of how much cranial size has changed over time. 
Multiple hypotheses on causes of reduction in modern human brain size need to be reassessed if human brains haven’t actually changed in size since the arrival of our species.

Publication Details

“Did the transition to complex societies in the Holocene drive a reduction in brain size? A reassessment of the DeSilva et al. (2021) hypothesis” was published July 29 in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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Growing Cereal Crops With Less Fertilizer

Carly Russell

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Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have found a way to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizers needed to grow cereal crops. The discovery could save farmers in the United States billions of dollars annually in fertilizer costs while also benefiting the environment.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have found a way to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizers needed to grow cereal crops. The discovery could save farmers in the United States billions of dollars annually in fertilizer costs while also benefiting the environment.

The research comes out of the lab of Eduardo Blumwald, a distinguished professor of plant sciences, who has found a new pathway for cereals to capture the nitrogen they need to grow.

The discovery could also help the environment by reducing nitrogen pollution, which can lead to contaminated water resources, increased greenhouse gas emissions and human health issues. The study was published in the journal Plant Biotechnology.

Nitrogen is key to plant growth, and agricultural operations depend on chemical fertilizers to increase productivity. But much of what is applied is lost, leaching into soils and groundwater. Blumwald’s research could create a sustainable alternative.

“Nitrogen fertilizers are very, very expensive,” Blumwald said. “Anything you can do to eliminate that cost is important. The problem is money on one side, but there are also the harmful effects of nitrogen on the environment.”

Blumwald’s research centers on increasing the conversion of nitrogen gas in the air into ammonium by soil bacteria — a process known as nitrogen fixation.

Legumes such as peanuts and soybeans have root nodules that can use nitrogen-fixing bacteria to provide ammonium to the plants. Cereal plants like rice and wheat don’t have that capability and must rely on taking in inorganic nitrogen, such as ammonia and nitrate, from fertilizers in the soil.

“If a plant can produce chemicals that make soil bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen gas, we could modify the plants to produce more of these chemicals,” Blumwald said. “These chemicals will induce soil bacterial nitrogen fixation and the plants will use the ammonium formed, reducing the amount of fertilizer used.”

Blumwald’s team used chemical screening and genomics to identify compounds in rice plants that enhanced the nitrogen-fixing activity of the bacteria.

Then they identified the pathways generating the chemicals and used gene editing technology to increase the production of compounds that stimulated the formation of biofilms. Those biofilms contain bacteria that enhanced nitrogen conversion. As a result, nitrogen-fixing activity of the bacteria increased, as did the amount of ammonium in the soil for the plants.

“Plants are incredible chemical factories,” he said. “What this could do is provide a sustainable alternative agricultural practice that reduces the use of excessive nitrogen fertilizers.”

The pathway could also be used by other plants. A patent application on the technique has been filed by the University of California and is pending.  

Dawei Yan, Hiromi Tajima, Howard-Yana Shapiro, Reedmond Fong and Javier Ottaviani from UC Davis contributed to the research paper, as did Lauren Cline from Bayer Crop Science. Ottaviani is also a research associate at Mars Edge.

The research was funded by the Will W. Lester Endowment. Bayer Crop Science is supporting further research on the topic.

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Illinois Tech ‘spinout’ Startup Influit Energy Has Created the World’s First Rechargeable, Safe, Electric Fuel

Carly Russell

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CHICAGO, Aug. 5, 20222—It was only a matter of time—before Influit Energy would need to hire more scientists, before the 2,100-square-foot lab space that the company occupies in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood would grow too small, and before the three co-founders of the startup whose history is inextricably linked to Illinois Institute of Technology would be ready to publicly disclose what they have created: the world’s first rechargeable, safe, electric fuel.

CHICAGO, Aug. 5, 20222—It was only a matter of time—before Influit Energy would need to hire more scientists, before the 2,100-square-foot lab space that the company occupies in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood would grow too small, and before the three co-founders of the startup whose history is inextricably linked to Illinois Institute of Technology would be ready to publicly disclose what they have created: the world’s first rechargeable, safe, electric fuel.

“We have created a new type of flow battery that is predicated upon a composite material that we invented, which is a nanofluid where the nanoparticles are battery-active materials, which we called nanoelectrofuel, or NEF,” says John Katsoudas (M.S. PHYS ’03), co-founder and CEO of Influit Energy. “All of the technology has come together—we have a crystal-clear path before us.”

Katsoudas calls Influit Energy a “spinout” of Illinois Tech. Leading the company alongside him are two co-founders: Elena Timofeeva, chief operating officer, director of research and development, and a research associate professor of chemistry at Illinois Tech, and Carlo Segre, chief technology officer, chief financial officer, and a professor of physics at Illinois Tech. Segre is also director of the Center for Synchrotron Radiation Research and Instrumentation at Illinois Tech, which operates two sectors of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, a resource that Influit Energy occasionally utilizes.

“[Influit Energy’s research] started back in 2009 as a basic science investigation when we were at Illinois Tech and Argonne National Laboratory, and we have taken our technology from basic science development, to applied science, to building prototypes, and now our first product development,” Katsoudas says.

The United States government has also played a critical role in Influit Energy’s growth, awarding the company more than $10 million in contracts to fund the design and fabrication of NEF flow battery prototypes that will allow several agencies to utilize Influit Energy’s batteries in electric vehicles and aircraft.

“The unique high-energy density liquid format of the NEF flow batteries allows use of the same fluids in different devices, meaning fluid, charged at the recharging station from renewable energy sources or a grid, can be used to rapidly refuel vehicles, or for stationary storage and other large portable applications,” Timofeeva says. “Discharged fluid can be returned to a recharge/refuel station for recharging or be charged inside the device by plugging into the power source.”

The company’s current client roster includes NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), and two grant-awarding programs operated by the U.S. Air Force: AFWERX, a team of innovators fostering collaborations across the military, academia, and industry, and the Small Business Innovation Research program (AFRL SBIR).

“We are using multiple small business innovation grants to demonstrate different elements of this closed loop energy ecosystem,” Segre says. “It takes time when you’re trying to do something transformational and new like this, and you have to not overreach, but ultimately, we’re moving toward the same goal—to actually get technology commercialization.”

Five separate projects funded by the government have been strategically designed by Influit Energy to work together as components of a closed loop energy ecosystem that will one day be able to be commercialized more broadly.

“Everything we’re doing right now is geared toward the specific goal of developing what we call the closed-loop energy cycle, whereby your batteries are not solid materials, they are liquids. You can treat the battery as a fuel that gets pumped in to mobility devices—cars, trucks, airplanes, anything that needs to be electrified,” Katsoudas says. “Every one of our contracts is funding a different aspect of the totality development of that ecosystem.”

The fuel utilized by this new system can be charged using either renewable energy or an electrical grid.

“Components of such ecosystems are batteries for devices like cars and electric utility vehicles funded by DARPA as of now; a refueling nozzle and control system, funded by AFWERX; and a charger for fast charging of the fluids, funded by NASA,” Timofeeva says.

Influit Energy has two separate projects underway with DARPA. One is focused on demonstrating the effectiveness of the batteries in a utility electric vehicle, and the other is a study looking at how to optimize and scale up the manufacturing of the NEF batteries. The goal is to reduce the mass and volume of the batteries.

“The fifth project is related to the development of [second-generation nanoelectrofuel] and funded by AFRL SBIR funding,” Timofeeva says. “This new second generation of NEF chemistry in our unique and proprietary nanofluid format will ultimately provide a four-to-five-times increase in energy density compared to state-of-the art [lithium-ion] batteries and could meet Air Force needs and demand with significantly improved energy density, increased operating temperature range, no fire/explosion hazard, and are made of inexpensive, domestically sourced, Earth-abundant materials.”

Because the fluid in the batteries can be recharged in any location using whatever charging mechanisms are available in that market, Katsoudas envisions tremendous growth and opportunity for the use of Influit Energy’s batteries in the future.

“That in a nutshell is what Influit Energy is going after, and every one of the contracts that we have is geared toward,” he says. “[Each of our sponsors are] funding a different section of the vision. The neat thing is that, from Influit Energy’s perspective, they’re funding this complete vision, pieces of it. For [each of the funding agencies], they’re getting a specific pain point addressed that is specific to each of our sponsors, so it’s sort of a win-win-win. And effectively that’s why we’re going to win this—the complete and total electrification of transportation, the electrification of transportation that doesn’t crash the grid, and the distribution of energy that doesn’t cost us to have to rebuild trillions of dollars of infrastructure.”

In June of 2022, the Influit team successfully completed their first NEF flow battery testing for the electric utility vehicle, which was demonstrated at a commercialization partner site. Katsoudas also spoke at the South by Southwest festival and a few academic conferences earlier this year about Influit Energy’s work, and is now in conversation with venture capitalists regarding the future of Influit Energy. As contracts continue to accumulate, the company is hiring new scientists and is actively seeking to expand its square footage—from 2,100 square feet to 20,000—through the acquisition of a new lab space. Where the lab will be located remains to be seen. The co-founders hope to stay in Chicago, but say they are also considering opportunities in Austin, Texas.

ILLINOIS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

Illinois Institute of Technology, also known as Illinois Tech, is a private, technology-focused research university. Illinois Tech is the only university of its kind in Chicago, and its Chicago location offers students access to the world-class resources of a great global metropolis. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, science, architecture, business, design, human sciences, applied technology, and law. One of 22 institutions that comprise the Association of Independent Technological Universities, Illinois Tech provides an exceptional education centered on active learning, and its graduates lead the state and much of the nation in economic prosperity. Illinois Tech uniquely prepares students to succeed in professions that require technological sophistication, an innovative mindset, and an entrepreneurial spirit. 

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Original Source: bioengineer.org

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