INFEWS: US-CHINA: Biochar-Enabled Biologically Active Filtration System for Sustainable Water Management in Rice Agriculture

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project was awarded through the 'National Science Foundation (NSF) / National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) Joint Research on Environmental Sustainability Challenges' opportunity. As the world's population expands to an expected 9 billion by 2050, there will be an urgent demand to balance interconnected resources such as agricultural products, fresh water, and fuel without putting undue strain on the ecosystems that provide these resources. Treating Food-Energy-Water (FEW) Nexus as interconnected rather than as three independent systems drives new technological advancements that could increase the environmental sustainability and improve the economies of communities that adopt these new advances. This project will focus on rice, a basic staple food source that feeds over a third of the Earth's population. Rice production is staggeringly water-intensive, representing the highest use of fresh water resources. Irrigation water discharged from rice paddies carries excessive amounts of nutrients, pesticides, and other contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), which pollute rivers, streams and reused irrigation water. To tackle water stress, reduce water pollution, and improve rice quality, researchers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers at Zhejiang University in China, will develop a biologically active filtration (BAF) system which takes advantage of microbes that consume unwanted organic matter contaminants. The BAF can be easily deployed to the existing water discharge channels at rice paddies to treat irrigated water. It will be developed and tested at select rice production sites to optimize its efficiency and cost-effectiveness in purifying the irrigation water, given the field conditions and social and economic constraints. This novel technology has the potential to transform conventional rice production into a sustainable agricultural practice by turning agricultural wastes into bio-oil and biochar, thereby synergizing the use of biochar and microorganisms to treat agricultural pollution. The BAF process and products will be coupled with recycling treated water for irrigation, and the bio-oil can be used as a renewable energy alternative. In collaboration with local governments, regulatory agencies, farmers, and universities, both the U.S. and Chinese research teams will conduct vibrant outreach activities to transfer and disseminate this technology to broader rice farming communities.

Effective adsorbent media and a biofilm with versatile and robust catalytic potentials are essential components for BAF systems. This project will advance our understanding of these two components and optimize their performance to mitigate commingled nonpoint-source contaminants commonly found in the irrigation water for rice production. The surface chemistry of biochar and its interactions with target contaminant molecules will be investigated to improve the adsorption capacity and selectivity of this material. During biochar pyrolysis, yield of bio-oil will be optimized as a renewable energy alternative. Microorganisms attached to the biochar are key players for nutrient removal and CEC degradation. A comprehensive blueprint of actively expressing metabolisms in the biofilm will be revealed at both community and single cellular levels using the combination of omics and single cell analysis. Novel biotransformation pathways and associated enzymes/genes will be discovered to untangle underlying molecular mechanisms, enabling the design of molecular tools to monitor biofilm biotransformation performance in the BAF systems. Improvement of nutrient removal will be achieved by leveraging filter dimension and flow rate to synchronize nitrification and denitrification stratification in the attached biofilm. Development of models will facilitate the prediction and design of operational performance in accordance with contaminant removal mechanisms. Built upon comprehensive socioeconomic analyses of the life-cycle impacts, cost-effectiveness, and local acceptance, pilot-scale BAFs at select rice paddy sites will be established as model systems that are adaptable by China, the United States, and other rice-producing countries. The goal of these pilot studies is to achieve water contamination mitigation, food safety assurance, bioenergy production and carbon sequestration, and protection of human and environmental health. Through distant learning modules and cross-university training, this project will cultivate next-generation leaders with intercultural skillsets, perspectives, and proficiencies to unite multidisciplinary experiences and tackle the complex food-energy-water challenges using sustainable and innovative technologies.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date9/1/198/31/23


  • National Science Foundation: $500,000.00


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