Chemical Engineers Take Aim at Waste

a small pile of horse manure; the main photo is of a crushed blue plastic water bottle

WPI chemical engineers are exploring creative ways to reuse waste, including horse manure and plastic bottles floating on the ocean (above).

Through its 2026 Idea Machine competition, the National Science Foundation (NSF) invited the scientific community, industry, nonprofits, and the public at large to help it set the agenda for fundamental research in science and engineering in the United States. Out of more than 800 entries submitted, “A World Without Waste,” submitted by Michael Timko, associate professor of chemical engineering, was one of 14 semifinalists.

As a follow-up to that program, the NSF invited proposals (for conferences and early concept, exploratory research) that address the problems identified in the competition’s first phase—including the one Timko flagged, the need to find ways to reduce and reuse waste. This time, two research projects led by chemical engineers at WPI were among the 21 funded programs.

Timko and Aaron Deskins, associate professor of chemical engineering, received a two-year, $277,359 grant for a project called “Nitrogen-Bearing Hydrochars for Nitrogen Upcycling in a World without Waste.” Working with Klaus Schmidt-Rohr of Brandeis University, Timko and Deskins will explore potentially useful applications of nitrogen-rich waste products in areas such as water purification.

The work will focus on the complex structure of molecules called N-hydrochars—nitrogen-bearing, carbon-rich materials formed by the hydrothermal treatment of food waste, livestock manure, sewage sludge, and other waste products. “Nitrogen has interesting benefits, such as acting as a great absorbent,” Timko says. “We’ve found that nitrogen’s molecules require a delicate balance within its configuration in order to act this way. As it turns out, these absorbents are effective for binding to harmful products, like metals, which can be found in our water supplies.”

“We were absolutely thrilled that the NSF funded two grants for the same institution, and within the same department. It’s quite unusual, since such a competition is highly competitive.”

Nikolaos Kazantzis, professor of chemical engineering, and Timko received a two-year, $259,299 grant for their project, “Probabilistic Analysis of Converting Marine-Borne Plastics into Usable Fuels.” They will explore ways of converting plastics into fuel for ships that collect them from the ocean (4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastics are dumped into oceans each year). If the ships can refuel themselves using the plastics they collect, they can stay at sea longer and produce fewer fossil fuel emissions.

In particular, Kazantzis and Timko will model a specialized reactor that might one day be built into these ships. Loaded into the reactor, harvested plastic would be broken down with hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), a process that uses moderate heat and high pressure to convert wet biomass into crude-like oil. In other research, Timko has used HTL to convert food and yard waste into biofuels.

“We were absolutely thrilled that the NSF funded two grants for the same institution, and within the same department,” Kazantzis says. “It’s quite unusual, since such a competition is highly competitive.”

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