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Using Biomass Waste to Create Low-Cost, Sustainable Fertilizer

Innovative Research Supported by NSF Could Lead to More Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Imagine being able to develop a low-cost and sustainable fertilizer that improves the production of crops and plant growth by repurposing the massive amounts of biomass waste that exist worldwide. This is the goal of Benjamin S. Hsiao, distinguished professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University. He and colleagues at Stony Brook and University of Queensland in Australia (led by Darren Martin, professor of chemical engineering) are embarking on a project to achieve this. The research, which would enhance sustainability practices and therefore have an impact on pollution and climate change, is being supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its Convergence Accelerator Program on sustainable materials solutions and capabilities.

Bhsiao in lab 1
Benjamin Hsiao working in his Stony Brook laboratory where he develops nanocellulose materials for potential environmental remediation use. Credit: Lynn Spinnato

The use of conventional fertilizers in agriculture worldwide is not sustainable for several reasons. These include high delivery inefficiency, significant consumptions of water and energy, and the high occurrence of negative environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient runoff pollutants to water.

Stony Brook and University of Queensland will partner in a project that aims to demonstrate a new kind of nanocellulose-enabled bio-nanofertilizer for agricultural applications as well as biogels for infrastructural protection and reduction of the impact of drought. The team will advance a zero-waste technology that creates high-valued nanocellulose products from any biomass feedstocks (underutilized agricultural waste, recycled papers and boxes, and food waste), which can be used for professionals and scientists for varying applications to combat climate change.

“This work will require the expertise of chemists, engineers, sustainability experts and scientists from other disciplines,” said Hsiao, the principal investigator, who has been researching this zero-waste process with nanotechnology and fertilizer manufacturing chemicals for the past seven years. “We believe we can assemble a great workforce to perfect this technology that has great promise and will eventually impact agricultural practices worldwide.”

The two universities are receiving a Cohort Phase 1 Convergence Accelerator Award from the NSF for 2023 to further work around the nanocellulose research. Stony Brook will receive $570,000 as the lead institution. The accelerator award is designed to further develop a foundation around the technology and build an international research team of collaborators from multiple disciplines.

“The production and use of materials today are not sustainable for our planet and human health,” said Erwin Gianchandani, NSF assistant director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. “Creating environmentally — and economically — sustainable materials and products is critical to our future. The use-inspired solutions in which we are investing in today will advance the circular design of materials and manufacturing processes to reduce pollution and waste.”

The NSF if investing $11.4 million on 16 multidisciplinary teams — this project being one of them — for the Convergence Accelerator. For more details, see this NSF news bulletin.

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