Attorney General Awards N.C. A&T’s Zhao $133K Environmental Enhancement Grant

By Jamie Crockett / 10/20/2021 Research and Economic Development, College of Engineering, College of Science and Technology

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (Oct. 20, 2021) – Attorney General Josh Stein awarded a $133,000 Environmental Enhancement Grant (EEG) to Renzun Zhao, Ph.D., an assistant professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The funding will support research that explores how dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) found in liquid waste generated from landfills might impact water sources in the eastern part of the state.

Eutrophication occurs when excessive amounts of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, causes accelerated growth of algae in lakes, rivers, estuaries, streams and oceans. Nitrogen has been proven to be a limiting factor for excessive algal growth in North Carolina water bodies.

Algae are essential to aquatic life because they support the base of food web systems and generate energy through photosynthesis. However, when these plants grow quickly and uncontrollably, they are considered harmful algal blooms (HABs) because they block sunlight and oxygen transfer in the water, and might emit toxins that kill other organisms and can harm humans.

U.S. coastal areas and the Great Lakes are widely known to experience these and other adverse effects of HABs. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “HABs have caused an estimated $1 billion in losses over the last several decades to coastal economies that rely on recreation, tourism, and seafood harvesting.”

“Most of the previous research studies focused on inorganic forms of nitrogen– for example, ammonium and nitrate – so researchers have identified effective ways over time to control and remove them from water sources. That part is easy,” said Zhao. “However, any dissolved organic nitrogen present remains untouched and the challenge we face is determining the unknown characteristics, amount and impact DON may have in stimulating algal blooms.”

Zhao aims to close this knowledge gap by developing physicochemical technologies to remove and minimize DON from the anthropogenic waste generated by humans in their day-to-day activities. Specifically, he will collect landfill leachate samples to help determine how much organic nitrogen is present, what materials contribute to its makeup and ways to remove the DON.

“The Neuse river basin is an important resource for North Carolina, however, toxic algal blooms threaten this valuable resource. Understanding the role nitrogen runoff from landfills plays in stimulating these algal blooms has the potential to help control and mitigate these blooms,” said Eric Muth, Ph.D., vice chancellor of research and economic development. “This will help establish scientifically based regulations that protect the river basin and its estuaries, and the farming, fishing, and leisure activities associated with this valuable resource. The research team leverages the strength of the UNC System and its universities, bringing together a multidisciplinary team of scientists from A&T, NC State, and Chapel Hill to produce real solutions that make a real impact.”

Zhao will collaborate with Hans Paerl, Ph.D., Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) in Morehead City, North Carolina and Christopher Osburn, Ph.D., a professor of marine biogeochemistry at North Carolina State University.

After treating and minimizing DON in the wastewater, Zhao will provide samples to Pearl’s laboratory at IMS, located near the coast. Pearl will add the treated water to natural estuarine algal communities in an outdoor bioassay, and determine if the algae, including harmful types, are stimulated by measuring their growth. Repeating this process will test the technology’s effectiveness and inform adjustments to Zhao’s treatment strategy. Osburn will use optical properties revealed through the fluorescence process to help characterize the organic nitrogen and distinguish what type of material is present.

Zhao will also work closely with industrial partners, Brian Brazil of Waste Management Inc. and James Law of SCS Engineering, for landfill site visits and landfill leachate sample collection.

“Our research team will work diligently to help solve this environmental justice issue that is negatively impacting underserved communities in North Carolina. Also this grant, along with others, will support and encourage underrepresented minority students as they pursue their studies in the environmental sustainability field,” said Zhao. “I am very grateful for the attorney general’s support of this project.”

“With this grant, researchers at North Carolina A&T will be able to better understand how landfill runoff affects our water bodies so we can protect the quality of our water,” said Attorney General Josh Stein. “I’m pleased that this project fulfills the EEG’s environmental justice component and will help us find ways to address harms, all while fostering the next generation of Black scientists and researchers.”

The other Triad EEG recipients are:

       Wake Forest University
       Project Name: A Comprehensive and Low-cost Water Quality Monitoring System for North Carolina Lakes

Southwest Renewal Foundation of High Point
Project Name: Cape Fear River Basin–Piedmont to the Sea

Stein will award nearly $3 million to 27 EEG projects across the state.


About the Environmental Enhancement Grant Program
The Environmental Enhancement Grant program began after an agreement between the Attorney General’s Office and Smithfield Foods in 2000. Under that agreement, Smithfield provides $2 million to the state every year to be distributed among environmental projects across North Carolina. Including the 2021 grants, the Attorney General Office has awarded nearly $37 million to more than 190 projects in the state.

Media Contact Information: jicrockett@ncat.edu

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