STEPS Center Tackles the Whole of Phosphorus Sustainability
Phosphorus is essential to all living things, one of the building blocks of DNA and the energy currency of cells. The food supply depends on phosphorus fertilizers, but their use is inefficient and unsustainable: non-renewable phosphate deposits are exploited and only 20% of the phosphorus used in the food system reaches human food. A significant portion of phosphorus leaches into soils and fresh water, becoming a contaminant that kills animals, grows algal blooms and expands coastal dead zones. Unbalanced, this vital element can end life.
The Science and Technology Center for Phosphorus Sustainability (STEPS) works to discover and develop ways to recycle phosphorus, make our food system more efficient, and protect the environment from waste. Based at NC State and awarded by the National Science Foundation, the STEPS Center launched in October 2021 after four years of preparation. This is already contributing to the global understanding of phosphorus sustainability.
“It’s been very engaging and rewarding because we had this vision for STEPS, and now we’re moving into implementation,” said Ross Sozzani, co-director of the center and a faculty researcher at the University of North Carolina State and Professor of Plant and Microbial Biology. “It’s exciting to see things falling into place.”
Led by NC State and based on Centennial Campus, STEPS includes eight additional institutions across the country: Appalachian State University, Arizona State University, Marquette University, North Carolina A&T State University, RTI International, University of Florida, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The center was awarded during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the middle of the fall semester and before construction of its home base, the Plant Sciences Building, was completed.
“We landed in one of the most prestigious centers awarded by the National Science Foundation under really difficult conditions,” said Jacob Jones, director of the STEPS center and Kobe Steel Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State. “But the commitment and collaboration of the team during the launch of the center exceeded my expectations. We have people interacting physically and virtually with the center. After working on it for four years, it was pretty exciting.
Because phosphorus sustainability is a complex issue, STEPS draws on a diversity of skills and topics. The center’s research focuses on exploratory and use-inspired basic research that ranges from the molecular and materials scale to how humans interact with technology to the global economic and social impacts of phosphorus sustainability.
One of the focus areas of the center is convergence computing, which involves taking massive amounts of information, merging diverse datasets, and using machine learning algorithms to inform next steps in computing. research. Convergence computing uses data science to evaluate and predict new materials, technologies, and strategies. At STEPS, researchers use these strategies to study phosphorus uptake and the breakdown and modification of phosphorus compounds. The center will create and disseminate new knowledge on the sustainability of phosphorus.
“The goal is not to create and deploy singular technology solutions,” Jones said. “We want to create a number of fundamental discoveries and developments that help the entire phosphorus science community move forward.”
The center has a lifespan of five years, with the possibility of renewing it for another five years. External partnerships are particularly important so that the center can continue to make discoveries even after the fellowship ends.
“We are now discovering new insights into the sustainability of phosphorus, and we will in year 10,” Jones said.
Research covering topics and scales
Within 25 years, STEPS hopes to help reduce human dependence on mined phosphates by 25% and reduce point and non-point source losses of phosphorus to soils and water resources by 25%.
STEPS is based on three themes: the materials scale, the human technology scale, and the regional and global scale. Specific areas include, but are not limited to, chemistry, physics, animal science, bioengineering, ecology, sociology, and public policy.
“Our researchers undertake a variety of work – they sit in front of microscopes to observe particles, go to sewage treatment facilities to collect samples, use wet chemistry labs to synthesize new materials, simulate biological molecules to using computational techniques and looking at spatial maps of how phosphorus is distributed across the United States — just for a few examples,” Sozzani said.
We want to create a number of fundamental discoveries and developments that help the entire phosphorus science community move forward.
The centre’s first line of research, at the materials level, is to discover and develop new inorganic, organic and bio-inspired materials to release, capture and enhance phosphorus and phosphorus species in liquids and solids. Examples of current research projects include the chemical and biological transformations of unreactive phosphorus, the recovery of phosphorus using positively charged ions, and the advancement of phosphorus analysis.
The second research theme, on a human and technological scale, evaluates the viability of technologies for recovering phosphorus from complex waste streams, optimizing soil properties and improving the bioaccessibility of recovered phosphates. Current research projects include developing new phosphorus compounds in a sustainable fertilizer, examining the genetic mechanisms of plant phosphorus, and controlling residual phosphorus in soils.
The third research theme, regionally and globally, is to use a systems-level approach to assess how human intervention, policy intervention, and technology adoption might affect phosphorus sustainability at different scales. under various scenarios of alternative socio-economic, political and environmental changes. Some ongoing research projects involve creating a national phosphorus budget and map, establishing baseline data and tools to simulate phosphorus fluxes, and assessing people’s perceptions and needs. stakeholders in phosphorus sustainability research.
Diversity in thought and action
Finding solutions to such a complex problem requires the collaboration of researchers from different fields and from different backgrounds. Convergence computing and the three research themes underscore the center’s commitment to interdisciplinary research. Even its home base, the Plant Science Pavilion, promotes a culture of interdisciplinarity.
“The Plant Sciences Building allows us to bring together, in one central location, many faculty, students, and post-docs, and provides an intersectional space for a very large and complex project,” Jones said. And it is advantageous to be in a house with other interdisciplinary projects. “Anyone in the building can learn from our experiences. Likewise, we can learn from other building projects.
“Bridging multiple disciplines is a critical part of NC State’s research enterprise,” said Genevieve Garland, associate vice chancellor of research operations and communications and chief of staff for the Office of Research and Innovation. Garland leads the office’s interdisciplinary research unit. “Our researchers bring together different skills and expertise to solve problems in a truly dynamic way. By encouraging cross-disciplinary initiatives, NC State creates holistic and comprehensive solutions to complex global issues.
Beyond the research projects and topics covered, STEPS has an ambitious diversity goal: its goal of broadening participation is to have more than 50% of people involved from underrepresented groups. The diversity of cultures, perspectives and experiences leads to original and innovative research. This goal requires leveraging all that NC State has to offer in terms of recruiting graduates, reaching out to underserved communities, and aligning the diversity visions of the STEPS Center and NC State.
“The university truly believes in diversity and interdisciplinarity, and it’s a great partnership between STEPS and NC State,” Jones said. “We have this goal of broadening participation because we know that bringing diverse experiences and perspectives drives innovation.”
For at least four more years, STEPS will continue to foster diversity, apply convergence research, and advance phosphorus sustainability. In doing so, the center will prepare students to work on complex, interdisciplinary issues and discover foundational knowledge to create a safer and healthier environment for all.