Professor receives $500,000 NSF grant to study the recovery of phosphorus from water

April 13, 2016

MILWAUKEE — Dr. Brooke Mayer, an assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, has received a $500,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to study how to remove and recover phosphorus from water. The CAREER grant is the foundation's most prestigious award in support of junior faculty.

Mayer's five-year study, "CAREER: Harnessing the Power of the Phosphate-Binding Protein PstS to Recover Phosphorus," will examine how to remove phosphorus from polluted water and recover it for future use in fertilizer.

"We want to not only capture it, but also recover it for future use," Mayer said.

Excess phosphorus in stormwater runoff from fertilizer and animal waste and wastewater discharges is the leading cause of pollution in freshwaters. The overabundance of phosphorus in waterbodies due to waste discharges and runoff has become a major issue in many areas of the world, including the Great Lakes region and the Everglades in the United States.

Conversely, phosphorus is vital to global food production due to its effectiveness as a fertilizer. Under worst-case scenarios, mineable phosphorus reserves could be depleted within a century, making it important to find ways to recover and reuse the phosphorus from runoff and wastes, Mayer said.

Mayer and her team of researchers hope to quantify phosphorus removal and recovery using novel protein-based systems. Preliminary data shows that a phosphorus-specific high affinity phosphate-binding protein can effectively remove phosphorus.

"But basic research is needed to improve the understanding of this protein's phosphorus binding abilities and its phosphorus recovery potential," Mayer said.

It is the first time the potential for controlled phosphorus removal and recovery using immobilized and surface-displayed phosphorus-specific high affinity phosphate-binding systems in both water and wastewater will be investigated.

"This is an important and timely issue, and we are thrilled that Dr. Mayer and her team will be leading global efforts to solve this important issue," said Dr. Kristina Ropella, dean of the Opus College of Engineering.

The NSF grant for the study comes from its Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program.

About the Mayer Lab Group

The group focuses on designing and assessing more sustainable water and wastewater treatment technologies, particularly nutrient removal and recovery strategies, advanced oxidation techniques and environmental microbiology for the detection and mitigation of pathogens in drinking water.

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