The Biodesign Institute At ASU Launches Center For Environmental Biotechnology

The Biodesign Institute At ASU Launches Center For Environmental Biotechnology

November 9, 2004

November 8, 2004

Kimberly Ovitt, Director of Communication & Institutional Advancement
(480)727-8688 |


TEMPE, Ariz.---Bruce Rittmann, PhD, sees pollution as a valuable resource that's just in the wrong place. An international leader in environmental engineering, Rittmann has been recruited to head a new Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. He will also be professor of civil and environmental engineering in ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

Formerly with Northwestern University, Rittmann will direct a large, multi-disciplinary research operation at the Biodesign Institute aimed at developing microbiological systems that capture renewable resources and also minimize environmental pollution. His work, which combines engineering with microbiology and chemistry, can be used to reclaim polluted water and generate energy from waste substances.

"We need to change our point of view concerning what society now treats as wastes. To make society more sustainable, we need to capture these valuable resources, and microbial systems often are the best way," said Rittmann.

As an example, Rittmann has research funding from NASA to explore microbial fuel cells, which utilize organic materials in water to generate electricity directly. Traditional fuel cells use hydrogen gas as their fuel. While hydrogen has a clean byproduct (water), it is derived from petroleum fuels and is therefore not renewable. Using microorganisms as the catalyzing agents and organic matter in food and human wastes as the fuel would create a renewable energy source. The microbial fuel cell captures the energy resource in organic wastes while eliminating them as water pollutants.

Rittmann is also a recognized leader in the development of the Membrane Biofilm Reactor, an approach that uses bacteria to destroy pollutants in water. The Membrane Biofilm Reactor is especially effective for removing perchlorate from drinking water, and it is being launched commercially. The Colorado River, which provides much of Arizona's water supply, has a high level of perchlorate contamination, and perchlorate has also been found in groundwater in the Phoenix area. Perchlorate at very low concentrations affects the function of the thyroid gland, which disrupts the body's hormone levels.

Rittmann said that ASU is an ideal location for researchers who want to take their discoveries beyond the walls of the laboratory. "The Biodesign Institute is unique in its focus on trans-disciplinary research that spans the gap between discoveries and applications, something that has become a primary motivator for me," said Rittmann. He noted that the presence of a commercialization arm at ASU, Arizona Technology Enterprises, helps ensure a more sophisticated and accelerated path in launching discoveries into the market.

George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute, said Rittmann's ability to cross boundaries between diverse scientific disciplines makes him an ideal fit with the Institute's integrated approach to improving human health and quality of life. "The depletion of natural resources is a serious threat to human health, and solving this problem requires bringing components of biology, chemistry and engineering together. Dr. Rittmann has already successfully demonstrated his ability to do this," said Poste.

Environmental sustainability efforts were established as a key University initiative by ASU President Michael Crow in 2002. Rittman's role as professor of civil and environmental engineering will help advance this initiative, said Peter Crouch, Dean of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

"Engineering can play a significant role in cleaning up our environment and developing renewable sources of energy and materials," said Crouch. "Inserting new concepts into courses taught at ASU will be integral to this goal. Right now, Dr. Rittmann is one of only a handful of people who have the knowledge and experience to do this," he said.

Rittmann is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, considered one of the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. He has been a member of the E.P.A. Science Advisory Board, president of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors, and vice-chair of the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council. He is the author of more than 300 books and articles, serves as editor-in-chief of the international journal Biodegradation, and serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Environmental Science & Technology. Dr. Rittmann's textbook – Environmental Biotechnology": Principles and Applications – is used by universities around the world to educate students about the ways in which microorganisms can be used to improve environmental quality.

The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University integrates research in biology, nanotechnology, engineering, information technology, and cognitive science to accelerate discoveries into uses that benefit mankind. Using living systems as the model for its research, the institute currently is pursuing innovations in healthcare, national security and environmental sustainability. For information, visit or call (480) 727-8322.

The Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering provides a transformative educational experience for engineering, computer science and construction students, giving them the knowledge and skills they need for success in a technically oriented career. Through the creation of a highly educated, innovative workforce and the advancement of technical knowledge, the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering drives sustainable growth and improved quality of life for the communities it serves. For more information on the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, go to


Written by: Joe Caspermeyer