BYLINE: Allen Ramsey

Newswise — Texas Tech University has today (Aug. 10) announced a partnership with four other institutions of higher education and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to create the NSF Engineering Research Center for Advancing Sustainable and Distributed Fertilizer Production (CASFER). 

CASFER, headquartered at Texas Tech, received a $26 million grant from the NSF for an initial five-year period with the possibility of renewing the grant for five more years and another $25 million. Texas Tech will lead the collaborative center and is joined by Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Case Western Reserve University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The Engineering Research Center award is the most prestigious and difficult award to obtain from the National Science Foundation,” said CASFER Center Director Gerri Botte. “This is a tremendous opportunity to solve one of the largest problems in the world: how we feed the growing population while protecting and sustaining our environment.

“We are going to enable resilient and sustainable food production and we're going to do that by making the next generation of technology to produce nitrogen-based fertilizer more efficiently while implementing waste streams. We're going to transform the United States and the world from a nitrogen pollution economy to a nitrogen circular economy in which we're going to recycle nitrogen-based fertilizer and use it to produce crops and food. With CASFER, we are moving toward a nitrogen circular economy.”

As center director, Botte, the Whitacre department chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, is tasked with leading a diverse team in developing next-generation, modular, distributed and efficient technologies for capturing, recycling and producing decarbonized nitrogen-based fertilizers (NBFs). 

“This historic grant provides a transformative opportunity for Texas Tech to expand the impact of our research enterprise,” said Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec. “The Center for Advancing Sustainable and Distributed Fertilizer Production will address a critical need of the agricultural industry and help secure the world's food supply. I congratulate Vice President for Research & Innovation, Joe Heppert, CASFER Center Director, Gerri Botte, and all who will contribute to this effort.”

More than 50% of the world's population is supported by synthetic NBFs, though just 20% of NBFs produced translate into food. The other 80% are lost to the environment, creating serious environmental, health and socioeconomic impacts. 

“Texas Tech University is proud of Dr. Botte and the entire senior management team who conceived and competed for this prestigious award,” Heppert said. “CASFER researchers will study problems of national and global importance, consistent with Texas Tech's research mission. We are very excited to be working with this distinguished team of academic and industry partners.”

The CASFER engineered system will revolutionize the capture, recovery and recycling of NBFs using byproducts from untapped sources of waste including concentrated animal feeding operations, municipal wastewater treatment plants and runoff. CASFER also will deliver novel synthetic methods that use waste and sustainable resources for decarbonized NBF production.

“One strength of NSF Engineering Research Centers is their ability to bring interdisciplinary academic teams together in convergent research to identify novel approaches to thorny societal challenges,” said NSF Assistant Director for Engineering Susan Margulies. “With their unique testbeds and industry partners, the centers innovate and translate solutions that are effective and sustainable.”

Since the inception of the program in 1985, the NSF has awarded fewer than 100 grants to open Engineering Research Centers (ERCs), which are designed to foster innovation and collaboration between industry leaders, government agencies and institutions of higher education. 

“For decades, NSF Engineering Research Centers have transformed technologies and fostered innovations in the United States through bold research, collaborative partnerships and a deep commitment to inclusion and broadening participation,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “The new NSF centers will continue the legacy of impacts that improve lives across the nation.”

About NSF

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2022 budget of $8.8 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and presents roughly 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.