Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling (NRU), LLC

Stage 2 E-Team Grantees

Recipient Institution: 
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Principal Investigator: 
Phillip Barak
Grant Amount: 

A technology to recover high-grade phosphorous from wastewater for use in agriculture and industry.

See the video here:

The team:
Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling LLC – Awarded $19,992

The team members:

  • Tyler Anderson, master’s degree student in Soil Science
  • Carolyn Barker, graduated in May 2013 with bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences
  • Christy Davidson, research specialist in the Department of Soil Science
  • Menachem Tabanpour, president and co-founder, Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling LLC

Principal investigator:
Dr. Phillip Barak, co-founder and science director, Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling LLC; professor in the Department of Soil Science

University of Wisconsin – Madison

The innovation:
A system that recovers damaging phosphorous from wastewater at sewage treatment plants in a form that can be used as fertilizer.

The problem:
The Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant in Madison, Wisconsin treats approximately 50 million gallons of water per day by removing harmful nutrients, solids and bacteria. One of the substances present in the wastewater is soluble phosphorous, which builds up over time and eventually clogs the facility’s machinery—a problem common to many wastewater treatment plants.

An essential ingredient in fertilizers, phosphorus is used to ensure optimal crop yields in large-scale agriculture. As the world's population increases, so, too, does the demand for phosphorous, which is produced by mining and treating phosphate rock. Phosphate rock is a finite resource, and there are growing concerns that the Earth's supply will one day be exhausted, which could have a devastating impact on worldwide food production. To avoid depleting valuable phosphorous reserves, there is a need to find ways to recover phosphorous from other sources when possible.

The solution:
Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling (NRU) is developing a process that extracts phosphorous from the treatment plant’s wastewater and “upcycles” it to a high-grade form that can be sold for use in fertilizer. The key to collecting phosphorous from the wastewater is to render it insoluble. NRU accomplishes this by adding the compound calcium hydroxide to wastewater, which raises the water’s pH, creating calcium phosphate minerals that can then be collected.

The future:
NRU’s claims for a patent have been approved, and the team is now seeking grants to address the engineering problems inherent in applying small-scale solutions developed in a laboratory to complex, industrial-scale systems. The team is confident that its method for recovering phosphorous involves lower input costs and recovers 40% to 50% more phosphorous as that of competing technologies.

NRU will also need to demonstrate that the calcium phosphate it collects is a suitable fertilizer source. The team must determine what is needed to make the compound chemically similar to fertilizers already on the market and ensure that the product is free of pathogens and other contaminants present in wastewater.

If NRU’s technology can be perfected and scaled, the team will have created a new service in demand by wastewater treatment plants and a new method for producing fertilizer without depleting the Earth’s phosphate ore reserves.

Tips for student innovators:
Menachem Tabanpour advises student innovators to “Tinker and fail early…as many times as possible.”