Environmental sustainability work earns NSF award

Environmental sustainability work earns NSF award

January 21, 2011

January 21, 2011

Promising research that could help provide a source of clean energy and improve environmental safety has earned an Arizona State University engineer support from the National Science Foundation.

The NSF has given a CAREEER Award to Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The award will provide more than $430,000 over five years to help fund research Krajmalnik-Brown is conducting in the Center for Environmental Biotechnology in ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

CAREER awards recognize young engineers and scientists who are demonstrating potential to be research and education leaders in their fields. Krajmalnik-Brown is the 20th ASU engineering faculty member to receive a CAREER award in the past five years.

Krajmalnik-Brown focuses on “managing microbial communities.” That means discovering what microorganisms can be combined to work together in the most effective ways to improve bioenergy generation and environmental decontamination processes.

This involves using a fermentation process to break down organic waste so it can be used as a food to nourish the kinds of bacteria that aid water and soil remediation and energy production processes.

The success or failure of such a process is determined largely by what happens to the hydrogen and organic acids during the fermentation process. The fermentation products that are produced by what Krajmalnik-Brown calls “good team players,” which provide food for bacteria that produce energy or remove contaminants from water and soils.
 
But fermentation products can also be converted to undesired products by “bad team players.” This has a negative effect on energy production and contamination removal systems.

Krajmalnik-Brown’s research concentrates on stimulating the “good players” that provide food and other benefits for the energy and remediation systems, while keeping the “bad players” from diverting food to other processes.

Because the good players and the bad players are similar for both applications, a successful microorganism management strategy is essential to producing energy and for environmental remediation systems, she says.

One of the teams of microorganisms can be used in systems that remove contaminants and pollutants from soils and groundwater. These teams have the ability to break down toxic chemical compounds into harmless products.

An example of a situation in which such a process can be used is the cleanup of health-threatening substances such as trichloroethylene – commonly called TCE – an industrial solvent used in decades past that has contaminated significant amounts of groundwater in Arizona, particularly in the Phoenix area.

Engineering professor Bruce Rittmann, director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology, says Krajmalnik-Brown’s progress demonstrates not only research skills but creative approaches to bioenergy production and water remediation. “She is giving ASU a unique advantage in the most important areas of environmental sustainability,” he says. 

The CAREER award will enable Krajmalnik-Brown to provide opportunities for graduate, undergraduate and high school students to participate in the laboratory work that’s part of her research.

She’ll bring knowledge gained through the research into both graduate and undergraduate courses she teaches in environmental engineering, including a course she developed on biotransformation that examines uses of microorganisms in environmental engineering, energy generation and health treatments.

Krajmalnik-Brown is the author of three patents, 18 research publications and has given talks and presentations on her work at numerous national and international science and engineering conferences.

She received a bachelor’s degree in industrial biochemical engineering from the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM) in Mexico City, where her academic performance earned her a prestigious Fulbright scholarship, which she used to continue her engineering education.

She earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in environmental engineering at Georgia Tech and later worked as a post-doctoral researcher at ASU under professor Rittmann.

Krajmalnik-Brown became an ASU faculty member in 2007.

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