Stevens Researchers Receive $2,922,918 DoD Grant for Environmental Technology
The grant funds projects that support energy independence and Net-Zero programs on military industrial bases
In the wake of record-breaking heat waves and devastating natural disasters, many organizations and individuals are more focused than ever on climate change. That includes the Department of Defense, which recently awarded a $2,922,918 grant to Stevens Institute of Technology professor Christos Christodoulatos and his collaborators in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering, including professor Xiaoguang Meng, professor David Vaccari, professor Dibyendu Sarkar, assistant professor Yi Bao and assistant professor Weina Meng. The grant funds critical technologies and systems to help the Army’s industrial base facilities reduce their carbon footprint and achieve energy independence.
Engineering environmental solutions
The US Army has robust goals when it comes to adapting to climate change. They’re gunning for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
“The net-zero program started a few years back,” Christodoulatos explained. “The idea was that they will look at the industrial base—the facilities that produce materials used in explosives and propellants—and see what we can do to reduce their environmental footprint in terms of water utilization, in terms of waste that they generate, and in terms of energy.”
To picture what some of these innovations might look like, imagine bright green ponds filled with microalgae that thrive on the waste from munitions manufacturing. That’s one of the projects the Stevens researchers are working on.
When an industrial base produces explosives or propellants, it generates wastewater streams rich in nitrogen compounds like ammonia, nitrates and nitrites, which are all components of fertilizer.
Instead of disposing of this industrial waste in tanks or drums, that wastewater can be analyzed, treated if necessary — or mineralized into nitrogen compounds and carbon dioxide — and then pumped into ponds and fed to microalgae. Harvested algae biomass can be processed to extract its algal oil,which can be upgraded to biodiesel, or sent through an anaerobic digester to produce biogas, which can be converted to energy using fuel cells or other technology.
This valorization — capturing the value of waste and transforming it into useful products — drives the effort toward more sustainable Army facilities.
“That’s what we mean by net zero,” Christodoulatos said. “We take these streams, which are basically waste and increase the burden on the environment…and we eliminate environmental risk and produce something useful. This is how you create a sustainable operation as well and minimize your environmental footprint overall.”
Other projects include taking very strong acids from the waste stream — like sulfuric acid or nitric acid — and breaking them down into non-hazardous waste for safe disposal or converting them to gypsum, a product that’s useful in many industrial applications.
And when it comes to direct energy generation, Christodoulatos said that, in addition to harvesting energy from microalgae, their projects explore generating wind and hydro energy to power microgrids. This would ensure that facilities are resilient and able to depend on their own microgrids under emergency conditions.
Making a difference for the planet and Stevens students
Christodoulatos, who studied chemical engineering before moving into the environmental space, says he enjoys that his research provides him the opportunity to help solve some of society’s most pressing problems.
“The other satisfaction that I get out of this project is the involvement of our students,” he added. “I wouldn't be an academic if it weren’t for the students and teaching. That's my other love here. I love working with students, both in the classroom and in the laboratory—and that's a great motivation.”
In fact, Christodoulatos wants to give every undergraduate student in the Stevens environmental engineering program the chance to be a part of this massive, dynamic project.
“I try to bring a lot of this work that we do into the classroom,” he said. “And we have an open-door policy for students who want to come and work here. We have work for them, and every student can work here if they want to.”