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NC State hosts grand opening of Plant Sciences Building, home to new NSF Center focused on phosphorus sustainability

NC State University officially opened its new Plant Sciences Building on Centennial Campus on April 12 with a special program featuring guest speakers, ribbon-cutting, tours and a reception. The building will be home to a new National Science Foundation Center focused on phosphorus sustainability.

CCEE faculty members — including Drs. Doug Call, Detlef Knappe and Dan Obenour — will join with colleagues across NC State to lead a national research effort to reduce dependence on mined phosphates and the amount of phosphorus that leaches into soil and water. The research will focus on issues relevant to both food security and environmental quality.

The NSF Science and Technology Center, known as Science and Technologies for Phosphorus Sustainability (STEPS), is a joint effort between NC State and eight partner institutions and is funded by an initial five-year, $25 million grant that is renewable for an additional five years. Dr. Jacob Jones, Kobe Steel Distinguished Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will be the center’s director.

Phosphorus sustainability is an important and urgent societal problem. An essential chemical element, phosphorus plays a critical role in fertilizers used in food systems. But there are problems with supply — the industry relies on mined, non- renewable phosphates that could soon be depleted — as well as system inefficiencies and downstream effects on the environment.

“The STEPS center will bring national and international attention to CCEE,” said Call, a CCEE associate professor whose research focuses on water- and wastewater treatment- technologies. “We will collaborate with researchers across the country to create new knowledge and understanding of phosphorus and the steps needed to improve the sustainable use, recovery and reuse of phosphorus. Environmental engineers in CCEE will conduct research to support the center’s mission of 25-in-25 (25% reduction in human dependence on mined phosphates and a 25% reduction in phosphorus losses to soils and water within 25 years).”

Research activities will expand understanding of how to efficiently recover phosphorus from wastes (wastewaters, urine, animal manures), remove it from natural environments (lakes, rivers, runoff) and transform it into forms that can be readily used in fertilizers. Researchers will also study the fate and transport of phosphorus from runoff and other sources and their potential impacts on the environment.

Current food production systems rely heavily on phosphorus fertilizers, most of which originate from non- renewable phosphate deposits that are mined outside of the U.S. Once in the food system, only 20% of the input phosphorus is incorporated into the human diet due to multiple system losses and inefficiencies. The “lost” phosphorus accumulates in soils and freshwater sources.

“Phosphorus-driven algal blooms impair safe drinking water and marine life, and the increasing flux of phosphorus to oceans also leads to an expansion of coastal dead zones,” said Ross Sozzani, professor of plant and microbial biology at NC State and
a STEPS co-deputy director. “Without intervention, the environmental, economic and sustainability issues involving phosphorus will escalate as the world’s human population grows by another 2 billion people by 2050.”

STEPS is an interdisciplinary center, integrating contributions across the physical, life, social and economic sciences, that focuses on developing materials, technologies and best management practices to recover, recycle and reuse phosphorus.

Researchers will draw from disciplines ranging from agricultural engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering and materials science to chemistry, crop sciences, economics and sociology. STEPS researchers will develop materials and technologies that can be deployed at the human scale while considering regional and global issues.

STEPS will also leverage a more than 50-year phosphorus field trial experiment at Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth, North Carolina. In this experiment, differing amounts of phosphorus have been applied to crops to study factors such as phosphorus-deficiency resilience as well as how phosphorus already remaining in the soil — so-called legacy phosphorus — can contribute as a nutrient for plants.

STEPS partner institutions include Arizona State University, Appalachian State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of Florida, Marquette University, RTI International and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Paul Westerhoff, a professor of environmental engineering at Arizona State, will serve as a center co-deputy director. ■