WSU engineering professor leads $2 million grant toward curbing nitrous oxide emissions

Bolstered by a $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, a group of Wichita State University researchers is hoping to create a paradigm shift from the use of harmful nitrous oxide-based fertilizers to more eco-friendly nitrogen fertilizers that would reduce greenhouse gases.

The project to curb nitrous oxide is a collaboration between researchers at WSU and Iowa State University, led by WSU’s Dr. Shuang Gu, associate professor in the College of Engineering, and Dr. Wenzhen Li, a professor in the College of Engineering at Iowa State. The ISU researchers also received $2 million from the NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

The WSU team will work alongside the ISU team to explore fertilizers that have a lower environmental footprint by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, with the goal of enabling a shift toward more sustainable agriculture.

“Our research is important because nitrous oxide has 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide and contributed to 7% of United States GHG emissions in 2020,” said Gu. “A staggering 74% of nitrous oxide emissions come from agricultural fertilizer applications, a percentage driven largely by the ever-growing demand for food, fiber and energy.”

'A deeper understanding'

The project goal is to develop an electro-manufacturing system powered by renewable energy (wind and sunlight) to produce green nitrogen fertilizers that are fundamentally different from current thermo-manufacturing processes that consume non-renewable fossil energy (coal, petroleum and natural gas). The use of renewable energy rather than non-renewable fossil energy could alleviate the agricultural impact of climate change while ensuring the sustainability of Midwest farming and ranching.

Green fertilizer technology holds great potential to create higher-wage jobs for local farming and ranching regions, especially for low-income minorities in rural areas, thus expanding capabilities and opportunities for agricultural communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change. As such, they have partnered with Dodge City Community College (DC3) in mentoring minority students and training minority-teaching instructors in closely aligned areas, including agricultural science and farm and ranch management. 

The project outcome should lead to a deep understanding of GHG nitrous oxide emission, nitrate upcycling, urea synthesis, carbon dioxide capture and conversion, and green nitrogen fertilizer utilization in agriculture. It should also open an avenue for new generations of technologies for nitrous oxide and nitrate sensing, anion-selective membrane and efficient chemical manufacturing.

“This research project brings together a multidisciplinary team of scientists from WSU and ISU that could enable an important paradigm shift,” said Dr. Anthony Muscat, dean of the WSU College of Engineering. “Their work has the potential to set the foundation for fostering collaborations and associations in both GHG nitrous oxide reduction and green fertilizer promotion across academia, government, industries, agriculture and communities.”

The two $2 million grants will be awarded over a four-year period. The NSF EPSCoR is designed to establish partnerships with government, higher education and industry that are designed to affect sustainable improvements in a jurisdiction's research infrastructure, research and development (R&D) capacity, and hence, its R&D competitiveness. NSF Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 Focused EPSCoR Collaboration (RII Track-2 FEC) awards provide opportunities to build inter-jurisdictional collaborative teams of EPSCoR investigators in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) focus areas consistent with the NSF 2022-2026 Strategic Plan.

"As evident from EPSCoR’s impact, investing in research infrastructure is a powerful catalyst for strengthening our nation's security, competitiveness and fostering groundbreaking scientific advancements," said Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the NSF. "I'm thrilled to announce this year's EPSCoR Track-2 awards, which will strengthen community and regional efforts to understand the impacts of a changing climate and enhance the resilience of disproportionately affected communities. By addressing these critical challenges, and engaging with communities impacted by climate change, we have the potential to advance innovation and promote economic stability and recovery in EPSCoR jurisdictions and beyond."

Other group members include the following co-primary investigators: Dr. Mark Schneegurt, WSU biological sciences professor; Dr. Jan Twomey, WSU associate dean; Dr. Michael Castellano, IS professor; and Dr. Liang Dong, ISU professor. Dr. Ruowen Shen, an associate professor at WSU, and Dr. Fallys Masambuka-Kanchewa, an assistant professor at ISU, are senior people in the group. Dr. Clayton Tatro, vice president of education at DC3, is the education partner, and Mike Beam, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, is supportive of the project.

“Our team is also immensely grateful for the major support from the Dean’s Office of the College of Engineering in developing this winning collaborative proposal,” said Gu. “On top of endorsing new hires of two tenure-track assistant professors in the project-focused field, Dean Muscat directly connected us with DC3 and the Kansas Department of Agriculture, which has strengthened the team and been an essential element to securing the award.”

About Wichita State University

Wichita State University is Kansas' only urban public research university, enrolling more than 23,000 students between its main campus and WSU Tech, including students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

Located in the largest city in the state with one of the highest concentrations in the United States of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wichita State University provides uniquely distinctive and innovative pathways of applied learning, applied research and career opportunities for all of our students.

The Innovation Campus, which is a physical extension of the Wichita State University main campus, is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing research/innovation parks, encompassing over 120 acres and is home to a number of global companies and organizations.

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