Funded Projects

Water Treatment and Management

Using Branching Fungus to Bioremediate Hard-to-Reach Contaminants

Primary Investigator: Peter Kang
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: Barr Engineering, Bay West
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postgraduate Research Scholar 

Problem: From 2017 to 2021, Minnesota received reports of 1,340 petroleum release incidents. Most of these incidents originated in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, which is underlain by sediments and fractured aquifers. Bioremediation is a solution to fixing contaminated soil and aquifers. However, the presence of non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPL), which are liquid contaminants like oil or petroleum that don’t dissolve easily in water, make bioremediation difficult. A large amount of NAPL becomes trapped in areas inaccessible to bacteria required in bioremediation processes.

SolutionFungi have the ability to penetrate porous materials using their hyphae, which are thin, hair-like tubes, and could be used to penetrate rocks and crevasses containing NAPL. Therefore, fungus with hyphae, known as branching fungus, could remediate areas with trapped NAPLs. This project will investigate the best ways to utilize branching fungus for NAPL removal.

ImpactUsing microfluidics, researchers at Kang lab visualized fungi hyphal penetration and growth patterns into oil-water surfaces in porous media for the first time. Combining visual laboratory experiments and sediment batch experiments, this project will lead to novel insights that can be applied to bioremediation fields, biomedical engineering, microbial-enhanced oil recovery, and industrial fermentative processes. This project also includes outreach activities such as the creation of a five-minute outreach video and undergraduate internships for students from underrepresented groups.

Addition of Low-Cost, Phenolic-Rich Biomass to Reduce CO2 Emissions and Phosphorus Leakage from Restored Peatlands

Primary Investigator:Christian Lenhart
Co-Investigators: Alexis Lipstein (Undergraduate Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

Problem: Drained peatlands emit carbon dioxide (CO2) from accelerated decomposition of organic matter. The biogeochemical changes in drained peat also convert phosphorus to more bioavailable forms, increasing leakage from peatlands and eutrophication in the peatland itself and downstream. Re-wetting peatlands can reduce these pollutants in the long-term but restored wetlands may be net sources of CO2 and phosphorus the first few years after restoration.

Solution: Addition of low-cost, phenolic-rich biomass, in the form of spruce or tamarack wood chips, can suppress microbial activity, which drives organic matter decomposition in peatlands. We’ll place the wood chips in peatland meosocosms with different types of plant cover to assess the benefits for pollutant reduction.

Impact: Peatland restoration is being considered as a “natural climate solution” to help address climate change and improve water quality within peatlands and downstream (see the February 13 Star Tribune article). However, peatlands are often a source of CO2 and phosphorus when first restored. Addition of low-cost wood chips which are readily available on-site, with revegetation could improve the pollutant reduction performance of newly restored peatlands and foster greater acceptance by land managers and promotion of the practice.

Reactive Biomaterial to Adsorb and Degrade PFAS in Water

Primary Investigator: Alptekin Aksan
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: Barr Engineering, 3M
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar 

Problem: There are more than 9,000 fluorinated chemicals (PFAS) developed for commercial use that contaminate Minnesota waters. Fluorinated chemicals are sometimes described as non-biodegradable, but recent work shows their biodegradation is possible (Huang & Jaffe, 2019; Liu, et al, 2020, and the attached letters of support).

Solution: We will combine bacteria that biodegrade fluorinated compounds provided by the Wackett, Jaffe, and Men laboratories (see letters of support) with silica encapsulation/adsorption technology developed in Aksan laboratory to remove and destroy PFAS chemicals from water. Aksan lab has previously demonstrated the feasibility of combining adsorptive materials with encapsulated biodegradative microorganisms to eliminate carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and s-triazine herbicides from drinking water. Here, we will focus on PFAS compounds using fluorophilic silica gels to concentrate PFAS compounds, which will be degraded by bacteria encapsulated in agarose gels in a reactive filter geometry.

Impact: Fluorinated chemicals are of significant concern due to their negative effects on health, even increasing the severity of COVID-19. Currently, PFAS contamination is treated by adsorption with activated carbon, incineration, landfilling, or degradation by high energy-demand, expensive processes (such as plasma treatment). Minnesota alone is spending nearly $1 billion to remediate these chemicals, largely emanating from legacy issues. As also indicated by our industry collaborators, low energy use techniques such as bioremediation would significantly increase our chances of removing these dangerous compounds from MN waters efficiently.

Delivering Microbial Bioremediation Enzymes via Sterile Animals

Primary Investigator: Micahel Smanski
Co-Investigators: Dr. Dimitri Perusse (Postdoctoral Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: Novoclade
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Problem: Microbial enzymes can degrade many harmful pollutants. Applying purified enzyme to contaminated soils or water can be cost prohibitive and ineffective, particularly when the pollutants are sequestered into complex organic matrices. In these cases, the enzymes cannot access the pollutants to break them down. Releasing live transgenic microorganisms expressing the enzymes faces difficult-to-overcome regulatory hurdles.

Solution: Transgenic animals offer several advantages for the on-site delivery of bioremediation enzymes. (1) They can functionally express microbial enzymes from diverse organisms, including bacteria and fungi. (2) They can break down organic matrices (e.g., plant matter) to free the pollutant and make it accessible to enzymatic degradation. (3) They can be easily sterilized via irradiation or genetic techniques to provide strict biocontainment and prevent against the release of transgenes into the environment.

Impact: If successful, this would be a new paradigm for bioremediation. The proof-of-concept could be extended to nearly any environment (aquatic, soil, marine, etc.) using different host animals.

Regenerable Membranes for Phosphate Removal and Recovery from Water

Primary Investigator:  Valerie Pierre
Co-Investigators: Srikanth Dasari (Postdoctoral Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: Metropolitan Council Wastewater Treatment Plant
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar with NRRI Travel Grant

Problem: The over-supply of phosphorus (P) primarily from wastewater discharge and agricultural runoff leads to eutrophication in many inland and coastal waters, causing substantial detrimental environmental impact, including harmful algal blooms, fish-kills, and the formation of hypoxic “dead zones”. Over 65% of US estuaries and coastal waters now exhibit moderate to severe eutrophication, with significant ecological, industrial, and economic consequences. Removal of P from wastewater and agricultural runoff is key to mitigating eutrophication.

Solution: Our overarching goal is to close the P cycle by sequestering phosphate (Pi) from polluted wastewater and waterways and recovering it as slow-release fertilizers. We will develop receptor-functionalized membranes with the ability to catch Pi from wastewater and subsequently release it at will, thereby regenerating the membranes while recovering an important resource.

Impact: The ability to remove phosphate from unwanted locations and to recover it as a valuable resource for agriculture is key to the long-term sustainable use of two critical resources: water and phosphate. 

Engineering Biofilms to Optimize Biodegradation of Lignin Waste

Primary Investigator:  Judy Yang
Co-Investigators: William Wei (Postdoctoral Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: Ecolab
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar with NRRI Travel Grant

Problem: Each year, tens of millions of tons of lignin waste are produced worldwide in pulp and paper industries. The presence of lignin in wastewater is a serious environmental problem because lignin has low biodegradability and dark color. Recent studies suggest that bacterium Pseudomonas putida, a “workhorse” for bioremediation, can be used in moving bed biofilm reactors to biodegrade lignin in wastewater and convert it to bioproducts. The performance of the biofilm reactors is controlled by biofilm thickness and density; however, the optimum thickness and density of P. putida biofilms to degrade contaminants remain to be characterized and methods to control biofilm thickness and density are lacking.

Solution: Our goal is to develop a hydrodynamics-based method to optimize the biodegradation of lignin by controlling the thickness and density of P. putida biofilms. We plan to conduct systematically controlled experiments in a customized microfluidic platform to determine (1) the optimum thickness and density of P. putida biofilms that degrade lignin most effectively and (2) the hydrodynamic conditions to control biofilm thickness and density. We will quantify the thickness and density of biofilms and the concentration of naturally fluorescent lignosulfonates using a confocal laser scanning microscope, which has resolution as high as several tens of nanometers. We will conduct biofilm culture and lignin degradation experiments in systematically controlled hydrodynamic conditions, including controlled mean flow velocity and velocity fluctuations, to determine the optimum hydrodynamic condition to culture biofilms that can degrade lignin most effectively. 

Impact: Our study will provide a systematic method to control the degradation efficiency of lignin and other contaminants by biofilms. This method can be used in paper and pulp industries and wastewater plants to remediate lignin and other contaminants effectively. The microfluidics plus confocal imaging platform developed in this study can also be used to test the effectiveness of other biofilm control technologies, such as biofilm targeted chemical additives. Furthermore, the developed microfluidics plus confocal imaging method can be used to study the bioremediation effectiveness of other organisms, such as fungi. 

Cyanotoxin Bioremediation with Microbes

Primary Investigator:  Michael Travisano
Co-Investigators: Jim Cotner, Beatriz Baselga Cervera (Postdoctoral Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: City of Minneapolis – Deptartment of Public Works Division of Water Treatment & Distribution Services
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar with NRRI Travel Grant

Problem: Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are an ecological and water supply risk due to a mixture of undesired effects: water anoxia, undesirable odors, and cyanobacterial toxins. HABS are an emerging problem in freshwater rivers, lakes, and reservoirs throughout MN, largely because of eutrophication and climate change. Concretely, cyanotoxins are emerging contaminants with diverse molecular structures and toxicological properties, ranging from mild symptoms to even death of animals and humans.

Solution: We propose to investigate microbial bioremediation of cyanotoxins. Based on natural evidence, satellite HABs communities are excellent candidates to degrade/ assimilate cyanotoxins and their degradation products. Heterotrophic bacteria play a significant role in the natural degradation and removal of cyanotoxins, but natural bioremediation of cyanotoxins and secondary metabolites by communities is largely unexplored.

Impact: We open avenues to discover degradation pathways and harness them for bioremediation through biological water treatment processes. The first step is to determine which strains have the capability to degrade the toxins. Additionally, our work will provide insight into why cyanobacteria produce toxins and facilitate management of HABS while providing insight into aquatic microbial community ecology. These studies can reveal community dynamics (indicator species or transitions), physiological, biochemical, and genetic/species differences among toxic and nontoxic strains.

Undergraduate Training in Encapsulation of PFAS Degrading Bacteria

Primary Investigator: Alptekin Aksan
Co-Investigators: Sophie O’Keane (Undergraduate Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Undergraduate Research Scholar 

Problem: More than 9,000 fluorinated chemicals are used commercially. These chemicals are of significant concern due to their negative effects on health as they are shown to harm the immune system, and even increase the severity of COVID-19. 

Solution: Minnesota alone is spending nearly one billion dollars to remediate these chemicals. PFAS chemicals have long been considered “forever chemicals” that cannot be biodegraded. However, recent evidence demonstrated that it is indeed possible to biodegrade these compounds. Our lab has previously developed a variety of encapsulation methods to utilize bacteria for bioremediation of hydrocarbons, herbicides, etc. contaminating freshwater resources. In this project, we will apply silica encapsulation technology to encapsulate bacteria that biodegrade fluorinated compounds. 

Impact: Most processes used to remediate PFAS compounds are very energy-intensive. If successful, this project will enable bioremediation of PFAs compounds with a minimum carbon footprint.

Cyanobacteria, Ciliates, and Cyanotoxins Interplay

Primary Investigator: Michael Travisano
Co-Investigators: Jordan Sivigny (Undergraduate Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Undergraduate Research Scholar 

Problem: Cyanotoxins are water-soluble, thermostable proteins that can persist in Minnesota drinking water sources.

Solution: We will investigate cyanotoxin function using a biological-based predation assay. We will use commercially available ELISA kits that exist for specific cyanotoxins. 

Impact: A link between microbial predation and the production of cyanotoxins by cyanobacteria will aid in developing new ecological criteria for predicting cyanotoxin prevalence in water sources inhabited by cyanobacteria. The resultant impacts on population dynamics will allow for the determination of an association between predation and cyanotoxin production.

Clays for Mitigation of HABs & Toxins

Primary Investigator:  Judy Yang
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

SummaryHarmful algal blooms, which are widespread in Minnesota’s lakes and rivers, produce toxins that contaminate drinking water and cause mass mortalities in fishes and other animals. Mitigation of harmful agal blooms is critical to ensure safe drinking water and reduce fishery and tourism losses, which were estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year in Great Lakes. One of the most promising strategies to mitigate harmful algal blooms is rapid sedimentation of algae through flocculation with clay, a natural material present in soils. When clay is sprayed to the contaminated water, it causes algal cells to flocculate, or aggregate, and sink to the bottom. The clay-algae flocculation strategy has successfully controlled harmful algal blooms in Eastern Asian Countries for over 30 years, and a modified clay was recently proved to be effective in removing harmful algal blooms and toxins in Florida. However, this strategy has not been adapted in the state of Minnesota. Development of a clay-algae flocculation strategy is the most efficient way to mitigate harmful algal blooms in Minnesota’s waters.

Microbes In Hard-To-Reach Places

Primary Investigator:  Peter Kang
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

SummaryContaminants in fractured aquifers are often trapped in ‘hard-to-reach’ areas such as dead-end fractures and low porosity rock matrix, making it challenging to bioremediate. Our preliminary experiments showed branching microbes are promising candidates for remediating hard-to-reach areas as they can expand their hyphae against flow direction (ability to survey hard-to-reach areas) and effectively colonize pore spaces (higher surface area per unit volume). As such, the core remediation component of this project will be studying the potential of branching microbes for in situ bioremediation of fractured porous media.

Microplastic Pollution from Paint

Primary Investigator:  Lee Penn
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

Summary: Paint chips are a significant source of aquatic microplastics (MPs) and yet, little work has been done studying how they degrade in the environment and how degradation may facilitate the release of contaminants of concern (COCs). We propose to irradiate paint chips with UV light in order to study the release of MPs and other COCs into the surrounding water. We hypothesize that paint chips containing higher levels of titanium dioxide (TiO2), a photocatalytic material commonly found in paints, will degrade more rapidly upon UV exposure. Results will enable an assessment of the viability of TiO2-catalyzed photodegradation as a remediation strategy for paint chips found in the environment.

Sustainable Extraction of Environmental Microplastics

Primary Investigator: Cari Dutcher
Co-Investigators: Vishal Panwar (Graduate Research Scholar)
Industry Partners: Adidas
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar (with NRRI Travel Grant)

Problem: The abundance of microscale plastic debris is critical pollution problem. Only fractions of the plastics are recycled, while the vast majority ends up in incinerators, landfills, and oceans. As a result, microplastics have now been reported in drinking water, food products, and even in snowfalls and artic ice. There is a clear need of more sustainable way of microplastic removal from our environment through waste-water and drinking water treatment and improve our understanding of overall process.

Solution: Recent findings suggest inexpensive, renewable bio-based flocculants like lignin, cellulose, and starch, modified to increase their charge density and water solubility, can be used to separate and remove microplastic from water through the established process of flocculation. This project will develop a novel strategy to efficiently aggregate and remove microplastics while simultaneously monitoring of the flocculation kinetics and aggregate size variation in a controlled hydrodynamic environment provided by a Taylor-Couette system. The researchers will determine optimal flocculant mixing conditions for formation of dense and breakage resistant flocs for efficient microplastic removal.

Impact: Wastewater and drinking water treatment are the most accessible and sensible way minimize microplastic pollution. The development of efficient bioflocculants and the use of a controlled Taylor-Couette flows to study microplastic flocculation are reasonable solutions. Our work will shed some light on the underlying mechanism of microplastic flocculation with biopolymers to achieve a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to solve the eminent problem. This will also help predict the process controls for treatment operations to minimize costs which aligns with the MnDrive goal of ensuring availability of safe and reliable drinking water with sustainable means.

Microbial Remediation of Personal Care Products

Primary Investigator: Thomas Niehaus
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: City of Minneapolis • Department of Public Works Division of Water Treatment & Distribution Services, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services (MCES)
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar


ProblemMetformin is one of the most prescribed drugs in use today, the dose is high (1-2.5 g/day) and only partly metabolized in most people, and it is fairly recalcitrant to biodegradation. Thus, it has become the most-prevalent anthropogenic environmental pollutant in surface waters and thousands of wastewater treatment plants (WTP) globally. There is evidence for endocrine disrupting activity in aquatic species and when chlorinated in WTPs, the resultant N-chloro species can be highly toxic to human cells. To protect Minnesotans, removal of these compounds from water must occur in WTPs.

Solution: This proposed research seeks to understand, and use, microbial consortia for effective metformin bioremediation. By sampling WTP sludge, we will isolate a pure culture bacterium capable of metformin degradation, sequence its genome, and identify genes/enzymes involved. We can then begin to correlate gene prevalence with metformin fate in WTPs and investigate factors contributing to metformin removal to develop improved bioremediation practices.

ImpactMetformin may be considered the number one anthropogenic pollutant in Minnesota, present in more than 1000 Minnesota waterways at orders of magnitude higher levels than other chemicals of concern. By studying naturally-occurring metformin-degrading bacteria, effective bioremediation strategies can be developed to remove this toxic contaminant from water in Minnesota and throughout the world. 

Managing Septic System Contaminants

Primary Investigator: Sara Heger
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: Stantec
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar (with NRRI Travel Grant)

ProblemThere are over 600,000 subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS) processing over 40 billion gallons of wastewater per year in Minnesota. Even with proper siting and design there is the potential for nutrients to reach surface or groundwater particularly with commercial and cluster scale SSTS where regulations and risk increase in relation to nutrient removal in sensitive environments. Biochar and iron-enhanced sand (IES) have been found to be effective in treating stormwater but their performance for the treatment of wastewater from septic systems is poorly understood. 

Solution: This project will test several types of biochar and IES’s effectiveness at removing contaminants from wastewater in the laboratory (1) with absorption testing, and (2) in enhanced soil columns to evaluate its potential to improve SSTS treatment. 

ImpactThe intended outcomes of this study are the development of a new sustainable technology for removal of dissolved contaminants from septic system wastewater. This work could open a new client base for biochar and IES across Minnesota. These outcomes will lead to mitigation of water pollution and jobs creation, topics that are vital to the health and well-being of Minnesota residents. 

A New Method for Treating Agricultural Wastewater

Primary Investigator: R. Roger Ruan
Co-Investigators: Paul Chen; Neil Anderson
Industry Partners: Forsman Farms; Minnesga Inc.; Holistic Health Farms
Award Type: Demonstration Grant

ProblemMinnesota is among the top producers of poultry, dairy, and swine in the United States. These animal production facilities create large volumes of animal waste, which necessitates proper management. Traditional management methods include applying manure as fertilizer and using open lagoons for storage and natural digestion. These methods, however, no longer meet environmental protection requirements and end up creating more environmental contamination issues, such as unwanted nitrogen runoff from fields and gas emissions from lagoons. 

Solution: MnDRIVE researchers have developed a scalable technology system to treat agricultural wastewater, while also producing valuable byproducts. The treatment system relies on microbes that digest organic materials to produce nitrogen fertilizer and methane gas. In addition, the system uses microalgae that extract nutrients from manure which can then be used to produce animal feed and biofuels. Lastly, mineral solutions will be applied to wastewater to further extract pollutants before being released into the environment. 

Impact: Sustainable and circular management solutions to deal with Minnesota’s animal waste that not only meet environmental regulations but also offer new revenue streams would be hugely valuable. This project will demonstrate the ability of new technology and a system to remove excess nutrients and other pollutants while offering value-added products. Successful demonstration would go a long way towards convincing the animal industry that sustainable management can benefit the environment and their bottom line. 

Improving Sulfate Removal from Wastewater at a Minnesota Power Facility

Primary Investigator: Chan Lan Chun
Co-Investigators: Nathan W. Johnson; R. Lee Penn
Industry Partners: Minnesota Power; Minnesota Department of Health; Yawkey Minerals Management
Award Type: Demonstration Grant

Problem: Elevated levels of sulfate in industrial wastewater can have adverse effects on the health of freshwater ecosystems, and thus warrants removal prior to entering the groundwater supply. Industries, utilities, and municipalities are tasked with treating their wastewater to reduce sulfate levels, but limited options exist. Current technology is commonly energy intensive and costly, which has created demand for cost-effective, flexible solutions that remove sulfate from wastewater.

Solution: Researchers have shown that bioreactors can harness the effectiveness of microbial communities in removing sulfate, but have only demonstrated this at the lab scale. MnDRIVE researchers have created such a lab-scale bioreactor that successfully utilizes microbes and mineral additives to remove sulfate from wastewater. This Demonstration Grant project team will scale up their bioreactor by partnering with a Minnesota Power facility to treat high-strength water with 800-2000 ppm of sulfate. This level of sulfate contamination is well over the recommended maximum of 250 ppm, and the volume of wastewater will be much larger than the lab-scale. This project will demonstrate the effectiveness of the bioreactor technology at realistic scales and allow researchers to determine optimal operating conditions. 

Impact: Current options for reducing sulfate levels in wastewater treatment facilities are energy intensive, generate additional byproducts, and are not very economically efficient. The bioreactor developed by MnDRIVE researchers could lead to lower maintenance costs, reduced wastewater volumes, and improved water quality. This demonstration of scalable technology will benefit both the industries that need to meet water quality standards, and the public who rely on clean water and healthy ecosystems.

Novel Biodegradation Pathways of PFAS Compounds

Primary Investigator: Mikael Elias
Co-Investigators: Larry Wackett; Peter Jaffé (Princeton University); Amir Shimon (Postdoctoral Scholar)
Industry Partners: 3M
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

ProblemPerfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are known as the “forever chemicals” because of their extreme persistence in the environment. Globally, more than 4000 PFAS chemicals have been created, and many have been linked to adverse health outcomes for humans and ecosystems. Until recently, PFAS have been considered to be completely non-biodegradable. This has led to inadequate, short-term solutions to minimize human exposure rather than addressing the important need to remove and degrade PFAS compounds from the environment. 

Solution: Recent work by researchers at Princeton University showed the first convincing evidence that bacteria are capable of degrading PFAS compounds to harmless by-products like carbon dioxide and fluoride. Elias and team will identify and characterize the novel PFAS-degrading enzymes from bacteria. Once fully identified, the team will characterize the structures of PFAS-degrading enzymes, and then further explore application of enzymes for biodegradation of PFAS.

Impact: Clear characterization of bacterial enzymes involved in biodegradation of PFAS will reveal the actual mechanisms of PFAS breakdown and provide important foundational knowledge for this new technology. PFAS compounds are considered the single greatest challenge of environmental containment in Minnesota, making novel biodegradation methods crucial to our state.

Using Microbes to Remove Nitrogen and Methane from Wastewater

Primary Investigator: Chan Lan Chun
Co-Investigators: Christopher Filstrup; Susma Bhattarai Gautam (Postdoctoral Scholar)
Industry Partners: Western Lake Superior Sanitary District; Metabolon Institute
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

ProblemNutrient pollution from urban and agricultural sources impact the health of water systems throughout Minnesota. Effective nutrient removal from wastewater is a critical component of strategies to remediate water before it is released into waterways and natural ecosystems. Conventional nitrogen removal technologies are often inefficient, require expensive, energy-intensive aeration processes, and are limited in ‘electron donor potential’ by the external carbon source.

Solution: Chun’s Team recently identified and enriched microbes capable of removing nitrogen from Minnesota’s wild rice wetlands that use methane as the electron donor, in place of external organic carbon, to drive denitrification. This project will further explore these microbes to develop novel anaerobic treatment technologies that remove nitrogen and methane concurrently, without requiring the expensive carbon source. Application of these microbes within engineered treatment systems will test system stability and efficacy as a new denitrification technology.

Impact: Incorporation into engineered treatment systems that process wastewater, landfill leachate, and agricultural waste, if stable and effective, would offer valuable new bioremediation technology to the state and beyond. Optimization of this anaerobic process would remove the cost of aeration and reduce the amount of methane and nitrogen released into the environment through wastewater streams.

Using Old Tires for New Remediation Strategies

Primary Investigator: John Gulliver
Co-Investigators: Raymond Hozalski and Yiling Chen (Postdoctoral Scholar)
Industry Partners: TDA Manufacturing
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Problem: Minnesota lakes and streams are becoming increasingly impaired. One contributor is stormwater runoff, in both urban and rural areas. The impact of stormwater runoff is controlled by a variety of factors, including population density, vehicle pollution, road treatment policies, and the percentage of impervious land surfaces. These and other factors influence the variety and amount of pollutants, including heavy metals, nutrients (e.g., phosphorus and nitrogen), and microbial contaminants. The effects these contaminants have on our waterways, soil health, and surrounding ecosystems are variable, but are dominantly detrimental.

Solution: Discarded auto tires, converted into Tire Derived Aggregate (TDA), can be used as an effective filter when incorporated in engineered stormwater remediation systems. Early indications suggest TDA systems offer similar hydrologic performance to stone aggregate, but improved filtration characteristics. Gulliver and team will test TDA systems at the lab-scale to assess their potential to host biofilm formation and the ability to optimize the filtration performance for specific contaminants.

Impact: The reuse of discarded tires would significantly decrease the amount of solid waste going to landfill or being incinerated. It would also reduce the demand for stone aggregate required by most remediation systems, which could result in decreased land surface disruption due to quarrying. The use of TDA in place of stone aggregate may also result in more effective BMPs, and therefore cleaner stormwater.

Optimizing Biofilm Growth in Porous Media for Cleaner Water

Primary Investigator: Peter Kang
Co-investigators: Josh Feinberg, Sang Lee (Postdoctoral Scholar), Michael Chen (Postdoctoral Scholar)

Industry Partners: Bay West, LLC
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Problem: Biofilms occur naturally all over the world, including water filtration systems and groundwater remediation systems. Biofilm build-up can detrimentally impact flow rates which can compromise the performance of filtration and remediation systems. At the same time, biofilms can effectively degrade contaminants. To optimize the role of biofilms within filtration systems, we first need a better understanding of biofilms at a microscopic scale within porous media.

Solution: A new visualization system designed to characterize biofilms at the microscopic pore scale will provide researchers with a better understanding of the variables that affect biofilm development in filters. This new system will enable deeper analysis of factors such as fluid flow, water chemistry, and pore structure, and therefore characterization of their influence on biofilm growth and the overall remediation potential of such systems.

Impact: Through a more in-depth understanding of biofilm formation in porous media systems, researchers will optimize the role of biofilms within filtration systems. This fine-scale insight on natural filtration systems should also offer many application opportunities for managing groundwater remediation in various settings.

Remediation of PFAS in Landfill Leachate

Primary Investigator: Matt Simcik
Co-investigator: William Arnold

Industry Partners: Geosyntec Consultants, St. Louis County, Minnesota

Problem: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are commonly used commercial chemical compounds that do not readily break down in the environment. Recent studies have identified high levels of PFAS in the environment, individual organisms, and even humans—to which negative health impacts have been attributed. These compounds are known to accumulate in and be transported by landfill leachate. This provides a direct pathway to public wastewater treatment facilities, which are currently not equipped to treat this contaminant. As a result, PFAS is quickly becoming a national water challenge, as it impairs more and more natural surface water, public water supplies, and aquifers.

SolutionLandfill leachate will be treated with positively charged cationic polymers before entering a wastewater treatment facility. These polymers have shown potential in breaking down PFAS. Using a protocol established by the  Environmental Protection Agency, the team will conduct lab-scale tests to establish the cationic polymers’ ability to degrade PFAS.

Impact: The use of cationic polymers to treat PFAS within landfill leachate, before the contaminant enters the water treatment facility, would offer a significant technological advancement in the mitigation of a growing water pollution challenge. It is anticipated that this solution would save water treatment facilities considerable costs.

Treating Urban Water Using Renewable Waste Materials

Primary Investigator: Joe Magner
Co-Investigators: Bridget Ulrich, John Chapman
Industry Partners:  Mississippi Watershed Management Organization; Young Environmental Consulting Group, LLC. 
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Problem: Minneapolis, like many metropolitan areas, faces considerable challenges in managing stormwater runoff. Impermeable roadways, sidewalks, and parking lots concentrate and channel contaminants like heavy metals, salts, and pesticides. These contaminants end up in local waterways, soils, and in some cases drinking water wells. Management and treatment of impaired water is challenging and costly, given the variety and concentration of potential and emerging pollutants.

Solution: Biochar, a charcoal-like material derived from renewable waste streams such as wood debris and nut shells, has the potential to treat a wide range of metal, microbial, and organic contaminants. Project investigators will expand lab testing of biochar’s filtration capacity by simulating specific regional conditions and using locally produced biochar in experiments. Results from this lab-based study should identify where this filtration system can be tested at scale under actual field conditions.

Impact: Biochar-based water filtration systems stand to offer a dynamic and sustainable remediation system for the removal of various contaminants. This low-cost treatment solution may offer significant assistance in managing urban and rural stormwater runoff challenges. It may also prove to be adaptable for other specific applications, like retention and treatment of construction site soil.

Electrically Stimulated Wetlands to Improve Microbial Denitrification

Primary Investigator: Sebastian Behrens
Co-Investigators: Kevin Ramratten (Graduate Scholar)
Industry Partners: Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc.
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar

ProblemElevated nitrate levels in many of Minnesota’s waterways exist in part due to high rates of runoff from agricultural land. High dissolved nitrate often causes eutrophication and the formation of hypoxic zones, resulting in significant damage to marine life and local ecosystem health. Drinking water with high concentrations of dissolved nitrate are connected with various human health concerns, most notably Blue Baby Syndrome in infants. How do we decrease the amount and rate of nitrogen transfer from agricultural land to streams, rivers, and lakes?

Solution: The use of wetlands, either natural or engineered, to control and treat field and stormwater runoff by utilizing microbial removal of nitrate from water has shown promising results. Yet the performance of the microbial communities is limited by the natural/environmental conditions of the wetland system, namely Minnesota’s cold climate and the low temperatures during early spring and late fall. It is proposed that electrical stimulation of wetlands can increase microbial activity and therefore lengthen the remediation season and remove greater quantities of nitrate from surface waters. The Behren’s Lab will work to optimize the microbial communities that perform well in cold climates and respond positively to electrical stimulation.

Impact: The in-depth analysis of cold climate microbes that effectively remove nitrate from surface waters, will provide improved performance parameters for this water quality remediation tool. Confirmation by this work of the efficacy of electrically stimulated microbes within wetlands at removing dissolved nitrogen from stormwater and field runoff, would add significant functionality to this application. Successful development of this tool would contribute to Minnesota’s statewide goal of reducing nitrogen runoff by 45 percent. 

Nitrification of Wastewater in Cold Temperatures

Primary Investigator: Timothy LaPara
Co-Investigators: Sebastian Behrens; Zhe Du (Postdoctoral Scholar)
Industry Partners: Brainerd Public Utilities; Barr Engineering
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

ProblemExcessive levels of nitrogen in rivers and streams can cause eutrophication of receiving water bodies. Wastewater that contains excess nitrogen is usually treated to remove nitrogenous compounds before being released, but the nitrification process is not effective during cold winter months common in Minnesota. The reason for this seasonal loss of performance is not well understood.

SolutionThe microbial community in activated wastewater treatment sludge is responsible for nitrifying the water. To understand the seasonal decrease in effective nitrification, the LaPara Lab will characterize how the microbial population and activity of the microbiome in wastewater sludge changes due to temperature. The data collected will then be applied to a predictive microbial community performance model.

Impact: The predictive model will help wastewater treatment plants optimize their process conditions to match seasonal changes. Improving nitrification performance, especially in winter months, will contribute to achieving Minnesota’s goal of reducing nitrogen loads to the Mississippi River by up to 40% in 2025.

A Strategy to Overcome Biofilm Plugging of Bioreactors

Primary Investigator: Mikael Elias
Co-Investigators: Gary Feyereisen
Industry Partners: USDA-ARS
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

Problem: In an effort to improve water quality both locally and nationally (i.e. the Gulf of Mexico), the State of Minnesota set a goal of 20% nitrogen and phosphorus load reduction in all waterways by 2025. The use of woodchip bioreactors that denitrify water as it flows through the system has proven beneficial in reducing the nitrogen load in localized areas. However, microbial communities living within the bioreactor media cause formation of biofilms, which plug the system and adversely affect performance.

Solution: Biofilms form naturally as microbes communicate with each other using a technique called “quorum sensing”. Previous work by the Elias Lab has demonstrated how engineered enzymes are capable of inhibiting biofilm formation by breaking down the specific molecules that microbes use to communicate via quorum sensing. The research proposed here will investigate whether these engineered enzymes are effective at blocking biofilm formation that specifically occurs in denitrifying woodchip bioreactors.  

ImpactDenitrifying woodchip bioreactors can effectively reduce nutrient loads surpassing Minnesota’s goal for 2025, if significant biofilm plugging is absent from the system. Therefore, solving the biofilm clogging issue is an important step in developing and confirming this treatment as a viable solution for agricultural nutrient management.

Battling Biocorrosion in the Duluth-Superior Harbor

Primary Investigator: Mikael Elias
Co-Investigators: Randall Hicks
Industry Partners: 
Duluth Seaway Port Authority; AMI Consulting Engineers
Award Type: 
Demonstration Grant

 Problem: Aquatic bacteria cause up to $60 billion in damage to port infrastructure on a global scale. Locally, Duluth-Superior Harbor is home to some of Minnesota’s most critical shipping infrastructure, and it is not immune to bacterial degradation. This degradation occurs from bacterial biofilms that accumulate on underwater structures, corroding the steel and deteriorating the foundation of ports. Current coatings for steel contain high levels of copper-oxide, which is not friendly to aquatic ecosystems. Locally, Duluth-Superior Harbor is home to some of Minnesota’s most critical shipping infrastructure, and it is not immune to bacterial degradation.

Solution: Elias’s team identified a naturally occurring enzyme and engineered it to protect the harbor’s underwater steel infrastructure. The enzyme prevents formation of destructive biofilms by blocking communications between bacterial cells. Manufacturers can coat the submerged steel with a layer of the enzyme-infused paint, and early results indicate higher efficacy than the most widely used copper-oxide coatings. 

Impact: The enzyme-coating could prevent the corrosion of 50,000 pounds of steel in Duluth’s ports each year, while withstanding harsh Minnesota winters. The technology has potential for commercial-scale installation at ports around the world with infrastructure affected by aquatic bacterial biofilms. The enzyme is also completely biodegradable, offering an environmentally conscious solution to an industry dominated by toxic, copper-oxide paints.

Technology to Eliminate Recreational Water Waste

Primary Investigator:  Alptekin Aksan
Co-Investigators: Larry Wackett, Tony Dodge (Postdoctoral Scholar), Kelly Aukema (Postdoctoral Scholar), Joey Benson (Graduate Scholar)
Industry Partners: Minnepura Technologies SBC, King Technology Inc., DowDuPont, Sani Marc Group Pool & Spa
Award Type: Demonstration Grant

ProblemResidential pools use trichloroisocyanuric acid (Trichlor) as a disinfecting agent to protect against pathogens like Giardia. As Trichlor breaks down, the byproduct, cyanuric acid (CYA), reduces the chlorine disinfection activity. The only way to offset CYA is by draining and refilling the pool, which wastes water, energy, and chemicals.

SolutionA new patented technology removes CYA from water without requiring pool drainage. Bacteria that produce CYA-degrading enzymes treat water as it flows through a bioreactor. The bacteria are coated in a bacterial exoskeleton technology developed in Dr. Aksan’s lab to stabilize and protect the bacteria from chlorine. Researchers will now scale up the technology to demonstrate its effectiveness and economic feasibility in pools in Minnesota and Canada.

Impact: Draining just half the pools in the United States once a year to remove CYA requires three months’ worth of the water that flows through the Colorado River. On this scale, the wasted water, heat, and chemicals required to refill pools affects everyone. Developing a treatment for CYA that does not require pool drainage will benefit the environment while continuing to protect Minnesotans from waterborne pathogens.

Solution Demonstrated and Implemented: The PI and c-PIs worked with the industrial partners to demonstrate a solution to the problem that would save water, energy chemicals, and be cost-effective enough that a commercial product was feasible. The demonstration was successful. It has been implemented and a product is currently being marketed by the industrial partners. New patents that protect the technology are held jointly by the Danisco group of DuPont and the University of Minnesota.

The key conceptual leap was the realization that cyanuric acid (CYA) biodegradation could not be realized on the scale of large pools in the presence of chlorine. In light of that, an approach was developed to dechlorinate, treat the pool water, and rechlorinate. The successful method is described in detail in the paper and the patents included below. The method has further demonstrated at swimming pool scale at Danisco-DuPont, Sani Marc and King Technology.

Enhancing Water Treatment Using Nitrate-Metabolizing Microbes

Primary Investigator: Satoshi Ishii
Co-Investigators: Hao Wang, Nisha Vishwanathan (Graduate Scholar)
Industry Partners: Metropolitan Council
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar

Problem: Wastewater treatment plants across Minnesota can effectively remove organic carbon and phosphorus from wastewater, and convert toxic ammonia to less toxic nitrate. However, they still discharge large amounts of nitrate to public waterways, which may cause unwanted algae growth and local ecosystem damages. 

Solution: Some microbes remove nitrate from water through a process called denitrification, which turns nitrate into gas phase nitrogen. While this process usually occurs in the absence of oxygen, recent research shows that some microbes can denitrify in the presence of oxygen (called aerobic denitrification). Aerobic denitrification should be compatible with current wastewater treatment technologies. However, it has not been tested as a water treatment solution to remove high concentrations of nitrate. Ishii’s team will explore and assess the efficacy of specific microbes in reducing nitrate concentrations within contaminated water. The lab-based approach will mimic wastewater treatment system conditions to evaluate actual scenarios. 

Impact: The optimization of wastewater treatment systems to reduce nitrate can only progress after microbial communities are better understood and characterized. Long-term use of these optimized systems should reduce nitrate impairment of local ecosystems and help Minnesota meet nutrient reduction goals.

Improving the Process of Industrial Wastewater Treatment

Primary Investigator: Paige Novak
Co-Investigators: William Arnold, William Northrop, Daniel Forbes
Industry Partners: Fulton Brewery; Metropolitan Council Environmental Services
Award Type: Demonstration Grant

Problem: Food industries, dairy industries, and breweries generate wastewater that contains compounds inherently high in chemical energy. Yet rarely is this chemical energy considered as a potential energy source/asset within the water treatment process. Additionally, at least in the Twin Cities, most wastewater is treated centrally through processes that consume electricity, the generation of which often contributes significant CO2 emissions, a key contributor to climate change.

SolutionDr. Novak and her team designed a system that breaks down the high energy compounds in a cheap and efficient manner. The modular, customizable system utilizes chemical bacteria to break down the high energy compounds into the functional byproducts hydrogen and methane. Hydrogen and methane can then be captured for use as fuel.

Impact: This new process should reduce the cost and carbon footprint of wastewater treatment. The system also generates hydrogen and methane, which can be used as a fuel source. Currently installed at Minneapolis’ Fulton Brewery, the system has the potential to be installed at other breweries, dairies, and food manufacturers – thereby offering these benefits more broadly.

Advanced Biocomposite Materials for Bioremediation

Principal Investigator: Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics
Co-Investigators: Maureen Quin, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics; Alptekin Aksan, Mechanical Engineering
Industrial Partner: 
Minnepura Technologies
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Problem: Across the state of Minnesota we face a variety of environmental contamination challenges, from heavy metal contaminated mine drainage streams in the north to pesticide and fertilizer compromised soils across our fertile farmlands. Bioremediation can be used to treat contaminated water or soil, but the techniques vary greatly depending on the contaminant and specific remediation needs of each ecosystem.

Solution: Encapsulins are bacterial proteins that have evolved to sequester heavy metals, thereby detoxifying bacterial cells. Encapsulin-based “Biohubs” encased in silica for preservation will be developed as a stable, adaptable, and reusable bioremediation material that can be modified with high specificity for a range of applications and contaminants.

Impact: Encapsulin-based Biohubs will be an economically feasible bioremediation solution because they use inexpensive silica as an encasement and can be manufactured using pre-existing microbial production systems. The high adaptability and stability of Biohubs provide numerous bioremediation applications for this biomaterial, including heavy metal sequestration and organic pollutant detoxification.

Novel Algae Bioreactor for the Removal of Manganese and Sulfate from Water

Principal Investigator: Satoshi Ishii
Co-Investigator: Cara Santelli
Industry Partner: Barr Engineering
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar

Problem: High levels of manganese and sulfate are found in groundwater and surface water throughout Minnesota. These elements can cause aesthetic problems in drinking water, such as odor and poor taste. At excessive levels, they can also have adverse health effects for humans. Current filtration techniques for manganese and sulfate are expensive and require careful maintenance.

Solution: At Onneto Yu-no-taki waterfall in Japan, microorganisms precipitate manganese and sulfate out of the water simultaneously with the help of algae, which supplies organic carbon. This phenomenon inspired MnDRIVE researcher Satoshi Ishii to design a bioreactor that mimics the biofilm of algae, manganese-oxidizing microbes, sulfate-reducing bacteria and iron-reducing bacteria found at the waterfall site for sulfate and manganese remediation in Minnesota.

Impact: This bioreactor may provide a more cost-effective and lower maintenance solution to manganese and sulfate removal from Minnesota waters, which boosts opportunities for industries and water professionals in the state.


Electromagnetic Enhancement of Microbial Processes to Improve Water Quality

Primary Investigator:  Chan Lan Chun
Co-Investigators: Eric Sangsaas
Industry Partners:  InVironmental Integrity, Inc.
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar 

ProblemDrainage from agricultural activity carries nitrate and excess nutrients which contribute to human health issues, like blue baby syndrome, and oxygen deficiency in aquatic ecosystems. Saturated land buffers containing wetland vegetation are built between agricultural fields and waterways to reduce nutrient runoff. Soil microorganisms in the vegetative buffer help remove the excess nutrients, but do so slowly, reducing the effectiveness of the buffers. 

SolutionThe Chun lab designed a system that integrates an electromagnetic field into the saturated buffer system. The electromagnetic fields stimulate the growth and metabolism of soil microbes capable of removing nitrate. Researchers will develop a lab-scale system to optimize the electromagnetic field conditions for increased nitrate consumption. The system will then be tested in a simulated environment using agriculture runoff from Minnesota farms, and ultimately can be deployed either in a bioreactor system or in the buffer itself.

Impact: Excess nutrients in the buffer will be removed more efficiently and minimize the area of buffer interacting with drainage flow, maximizing the water quality. Furthermore, the system could potentially suppress unwanted greenhouse gases produced as a byproduct of microbial processes and enhance the removal of nitrogen by the bacteria.

Removing Mercury and Microorganisms from Minnesota Waters

Primary Investigator:  Abdennour Abbas
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: 3M and Solenis LLC
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar 

ProblemIn 2004, two-thirds of all impaired waters in Minnesota were contaminated with mercury, with some waterways containing more than 6 times the EPA limit. As a result of pregnant women consuming contaminated fish, 10 percent of tested newborns in the North Shore region showed levels of mercury exposure exceeding the EPA limit.

Solution: The Abbas lab recently developed a selenium-containing sponge that removes over 99 percent of mercury from water and prevents unwanted bacterial growth. Now, the lab will develop a composite sponge with additional layers that remove all microorganisms, including fungi, bacteria, and viruses. 

Impact: Selenium sponges are cost-efficient and will eliminate toxic byproducts of current mercury filtration systems. Improving the filtration of mercury and microorganisms will improve the health of local ecosystems and lower exposure of contaminants for the people around them.

Helping Aquatic Insects Counteract the Effects of Fungicides

Primary Investigator:  Leonard Ferrington
Co-Investigators: NA
Industry Partners: RMB Environmental Laboratories, Inc., Tetra Tech (Center for Ecological Sciences), AmiThompson Consulting, LLC
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar 

ProblemFungicides accumulating in Minnesota’s surface waters threaten aquatic insects that rely on fungi in their stomachs to break down their food. Certain insect populations face declining growth rates, population size, and average life span, and one of the biggest contributors to these trends is the abundance of fungicides in waterways and ecosystems. In some cases, local species extinction has been documented.

Solution: Specific aquatic insects located in our state and region have been documented to maintain resilient gut fungi that can survive exposure to high levels of fungicides. Two groups of aquatic insects, “filter-feeders” and “shredders”, will be studied and analyzed specifically to identify environmentally tolerant gut fungi. Once identified, these resilient fungal strains will be isolated and used in a controlled cross-exposure experiment. Each insect will be exposed to the selected “fungicide resilient” fungi from the other insect to determine if cross-exposure will promote the replacement of less tolerant gut fungi. 

Impact: Successful cross-exposure of tolerant gut-fungi could offer a tool to improve survivorship among insect populations exposed to high concentrations of fungicides. The revival of insect communities that have suffered due to fungicides would result in a more available food source for native fish and strengthen local ecosystems. This work also offers a potential water management tool for waterways contaminated with fungicides.

Electrically Stimulating Microbes to Remove Sulfate from Mining Drainage

Primary Investigator: Chan Lan Chun
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

ProblemEven at low levels, pharmaceuticals that enter Minnesota waterways can harm the environment and wildlife. The pharmaceuticals enter the environment through wastewater treatment plant effluent that is discharged in local waters, or in the wastewater sludge that is applied in farm fields. Pharmaceuticals do not degrade easily in fields, demanding new strategies to remove the pollutants from wastewater. 

Solution: The Sander Lab will investigate aerobic bioremediation as a more effective strategy for removing pharmaceutical micropollutants at wastewater treatment plants. Researchers will track the fate of pharmaceuticals through the facility and propose optimized solutions based on the biodegradation of the micropollutants and flow capacity of the plant.

Impact: Improving pharmaceutical removal at wastewater treatment sites will reduce the amount of micropollutants that enter the environment, thereby protecting Minnesota’s water resources. A solution at the wastewater site will also allow for the continued application of sludge in farm fields, which is agriculturally beneficial for its high nutrient content.

Disrupting Bacterial Communication to Reduce Biocorrosion of Minnesota’s Maritime Transportation Infrastructure

Primary Investigator: Randall Hicks
Mikael Elias (Co-PI)
Industry Partners: AMI Consulting Engineers
Award Type: Seed Grant – Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Problem: Communities around the Great Lakes rely on maritime transportation to support the iron ore, slab steel, low sulfur coal, and non-ferrous metal industries, as well as tourism and boating. Ports in Lake Superior that are essential to these industries are facing accelerated loss of infrastructure as microbial biofilms corrode steel in the aquatic environment.

Solution: The biofilms that corrode docks, piers, and bulkheads in Lake Superior rely on quorum sensing, a type of bacterial cell communication, to colonize the steel surfaces. The Hicks Lab will disrupt this bacterial communication using a lactonase enzyme coating and test how the disruption affects biofilm formation and rate of corrosion. Lactonase has been successful in initial 2-month trials, but the MnDRIVE researchers will now investigate the enzyme’s effectiveness throughout a full year in the lake environment.

Impact: The Duluth-Superior Harbor, the largest port in the Great Lakes, has a $200 million annual impact on Minnesota’s economy. A solution for microbial corrosion of steel surfaces would protect this and other ports’ economic activities by reducing the rate of infrastructure loss. The novel lactonase-based approach could be patented by the University of Minnesota as an important solution for a widespread issue in the Great Lakes maritime transportation.

Enzymatic Removal of Organic Contaminants from Water

Primary Investigator: Romas Kazlauskas
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Graduate Research Scholar

Problem: Organic contaminants from oil spills, fracking fluids, and gasoline leaks are difficult to clean up because of their complex mixtures and hydrophobic properties. Current technologies utilize laundry detergents but are slow and require a high pH. New remediation methods are needed to remove organic contaminants.

Solution: MnDRIVE researchers in the Kazlauskas Lab will work to engineer an enzyme to target hydrophobic, organic contaminants at a neutral pH. The lab will start with an existing enzymes called Pseudomonas fluorescens esterase because of its ability to form peracetic acid from ethyl acetate in water, a key first step in removing organic materials. The enzyme will be engineered to be more hydrophobic near the active area to increase the use of similarly hydrophobic organic contaminants. The active site of the enzyme will also be modified to expand the number of organic contaminants that can be removed.

Impact: The Kazlauskas Lab will create around 1000 variants of the engineered enzyme and determine which are most effective at removing organic contaminants. Engineering Pseudomonas fluorescens esterase will also allow researchers to test its activity in simulated environments to determine how much of the enzyme should be applied to contaminated water.

Capturing and Repurposing Nitrogen and Phosphorus from Agricultural Runoff

Primary Investigator: Satoshi Ishii
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

Problem: Agricultural runoff sends nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) nutrients into rivers and lakes. This can cause eutrophication, where algae grow too quickly and damage the aquatic ecosystem. Agricultural runoff in Minnesota also contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Some techniques can reduce runoff from fields, but it remains difficult to control N and P leaching completely.

Solution: The Ishii Lab will harness algae’s ability to grow quickly in the presence of excess N and P. Instead of causing eutrophication, the algae will remove N and P from runoff water in a bioreactor. Researchers will monitor water quality in the bioreactor and perform DNA/RNA analysis on efficient communities to optimize a granule-based algal bioreactor. Granules are microbial structures that sink when they become large enough, leaving clean water at the top. Bioreactors that use granular technology have higher nutrient removal efficiencies and less energy input compared to other nutrient removal systems.

Impact: An algal bioreactor can improve water quality in Minnesota’s aquatic ecosystems, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, without sacrificing agricultural activity. The algae biomass can be harvested for energy or reused as fertilizer because of its high nutrient content.

Pharmaceutical Micropollutants in Wastewater Treatment Plants

Primary Investigator: Guy Sander
Industry Partners: NA
Award Type: Seed Grant – Undergraduate Research Scholar

ProblemEven at low levels, pharmaceuticals that enter Minnesota waterways can harm the environment and wildlife. The pharmaceuticals enter the environment through wastewater treatment plant effluent that is discharged in local waters, or in the wastewater sludge that is applied in farm fields. Pharmaceuticals do not degrade easily in fields, demanding new strategies to remove the pollutants from wastewater. 

Solution: The Sander Lab will investigate aerobic bioremediation as a more effective strategy for removing pharmaceutical micropollutants at wastewater treatment plants. Researchers will track the fate of pharmaceuticals through the facility and propose optimized solutions based on the biodegradation of the micropollutants and flow capacity of the plant.

Impact: Improving pharmaceutical removal at wastewater treatment sites will reduce the amount of micropollutants that enter the environment, thereby protecting Minnesota’s water resources. A solution at the wastewater site will also allow for the continued application of sludge in farm fields, which is agriculturally beneficial for its high nutrient content.

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