$100K Research Award Will Advance Removal of Contaminants and Pathogens

Oct 11, 2022
Press Release

Earlier today, The Water Research Foundation (WRF) presented Professor Belinda Sturm, PhD, with the 2022 Paul L. Busch Award. With this $100,000 research prize, Professor Sturm will assess how the physical, chemical, and biological properties of aerobic granular sludge impact the removal of pathogens and microplastics from wastewater.

Wastewater from residences, businesses, and other properties carries materials such as carbon, nutrients, pathogens, and microplastics to water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs). While WRRFs have processes in place to remove contaminants, there is a need for more research into increasing capacity, ensuring efficiency, and understanding the broader applications of existing treatment technologies.

Aerobic granular sludge (AGS) enables WRRFs to increase their capacity without having to expand their facilities. AGS is made up of the solid particles that settle out of wastewater during aerobic (oxygen-dependent) treatment. These particles, or granules, provide a surface on which microbial communities (referred to as biofilms) form. Sturm’s research project, Engineering the Reactive Surface of Aerobic Granular Systems for Contaminant and Pathogen Removal, seeks to further the understanding of how AGS biofilms, which are typically used to remove nutrients from wastewater, can optimize pathogen and microplastics removal as well.

Partnering with the city of Lawrence, Kansas, and Metro Water Recovery (Denver, CO), Sturm will assess the removal of pathogens from wastewater due to grazing by the protozoa in biofilms, as well as the sorption of microplastics onto AGS granules. This research will “explore the fundamental properties of AGS while demonstrating full-scale and practical improvements for water quality,” Sturm said. This research has the potential to significantly enhance wastewater treatment and further the science related to biofilms.

Sturm began researching aerobic activated sludge when she was a PhD student. She has been a leader in innovative wastewater treatment research ever since. Currently a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas, Sturm has served as Principal Investigator on a variety of innovative research projects, including a few WRF projects. Her research group focuses on the application of biological processes in environmental engineering in order to enhance public health protection and sustainability. In addition to her work at the University, Sturm serves as director of the Kansas National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and chair of the Water Environment Federation’s Municipal Design Symposium.

On receiving the Paul L. Busch Award, Sturm said that “the greatest achievement in water quality research is obtained when knowledge is put into practice to create a safer environment. I am humbled to receive the Paul L. Busch Award, which will enable me to explore a new research application in collaboration with utility partners. I believe innovation is realized through these collaborations, and I am thankful to The Water Research Foundation for providing this platform.”

For 22 years, the WRF Endowment for Innovation in Applied Water Quality Research has supported the Paul L. Busch Award, providing more than $2M in funding to researchers who are making major breakthroughs in water quality science. More information about the Paul L. Busch Award can be found on WRF’s website.