ECU-led research team receives UNC System grant

For the second year in a row, the University of North Carolina System announced that a team led by an East Carolina University researcher was awarded a grant through the UNC Research Opportunities Initiative (ROI).

Dr. Natasha Bell teaches during a wastewater class in the Flanagan Building in January. (ECU photo by Rhett Butler)

Anchored by College of Engineering and Technology assistant professor Natasha Bell, the research project aims to overcome barriers to growth in North Carolina’s aquaculture industry and strengthen the resiliency of wastewater infrastructure throughout the state.

The $1.2 million grant will fund the project for three years beginning next month.

North Carolina faces major challenges in economic growth, recovery and natural resource protection. Bell said a key component of addressing these challenges is improved wastewater treatment methods.

“Eastern North Carolina is facing many challenges related to climate change, including saltwater intrusion on cropland and damage from extreme weather events,” Bell said. “These threaten important sectors of the economy and valuable coastal ecosystems. Our study aims to help the region adapt to these challenges through the implementation of ecological engineered wastewater treatment technologies, such as hybrid constructed wetlands, which utilize naturally occurring methods to process contaminants.”

As part of the project, the research team will develop new ecological engineering treatment technologies and test them at ECU’s Ecological Engineering Outdoor Laboratory and North Carolina State University’s Marine Aquaculture Research Center. These experiments include novel 3D-printed technology that explores the water treatment capabilities of different materials, as well as their ability to capture nitrogen and phosphorous for potential agricultural reuse.

Additionally, the team will conduct two on-site experiments at the Greenville Utilities Commission wastewater treatment plant. One experiment will investigate a design intended for neighborhood-scale wastewater treatment systems while the second will test pre-treated wastewater to determine if nutrients can be extracted for later reuse.

The experiments and analyses led by the research team may lead to breakthroughs that will help the region become a hotspot for aquaculture growth and provide more effective and cheaper wastewater treatment options.

In addition to GUC, Bell’s research team is collaborating with Raleigh-based startup Natrx Inc. Natrx is an adaptive infrastructure company that incorporates a region’s natural environment into infrastructure solutions through its 3D-printing technology. The team will work with Natrx to develop novel structures and materials to capture nutrients.

Dr. Natasha Bell works with a student at the West Research Campus on a wastewater-related project for her environmental engineering course. (ECU photo by Cliff Hollis)

“Through our partnerships with GUC and Natrx, and sustained communications with stakeholders — including environmental consulting, agriculture, nonprofits, regulatory agencies, and manufacturing partners — we aim to develop new technology to optimize wastewater treatment,” Bell said.

“In addition to these technological advances, increased understanding of stakeholder perceptions and analyses of our experimental processes will allow us to gain insight into barriers to adoption of ecological engineered treatment technologies and returns on investment, as well as the potential for beneficial reuse of wastewater treatment byproducts and application of these technologies in other water-intensive industries, such as manufacturing,” she said.

The grant research team includes additional faculty members from CET, the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and the ECU Water Resources Center. Bell is also joined by colleagues at the Coastal Studies Institute and NC State.

Research activities will be integrated into engineering, biology, chemistry and economic courses at ECU.

This is the second ROI grant awarded to ECU. Last year CET assistant professor Kura Duba’s research team received a grant for its development of a no-waste, sustainable water desalination system.

Dr. Natasha Bell, left, works with students at the West Research Campus. (ECU Photo by Cliff Hollis)

“I’m so proud of Dr. Bell and her success in building her ROI team and securing this investment from the UNC System,” said Harry Ploehn, dean of ECU’s College of Engineering and Technology. “This project highlights everything we’re trying to accomplish in our research mission — getting more students involved in research, supporting faculty collaboration and engaging with partners like GUC and Natrx who will help us lead regional transformation.”

Funded through the N,C. General Assembly, ROI grants are designed to promote innovative and potentially game-changing research projects. Priority research areas in 2021 included advanced manufacturing, marine and coastal science, defense, military and security, pharmacoengineering, energy, and data science.

Award criteria for ROI grants varies year by year. Grants often support multi-institutional projects, harnessing and amplifying the unique strengths found at each of the UNC System institutions.

“ECU has experienced tremendous growth in research and sponsored programs over the last eight years,” said Mike Van Scott, vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement. “Dr. Bell’s accomplishment reflects the strength of the faculty and overall research environment that has led to that growth. It is tremendously gratifying to see a new faculty member join ECU, assemble a diverse research team that includes academic and private partners, and then compete successfully for a competitive award.”

Other grant recipients included teams from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Appalachian State University.

“These grants foster partnerships among researchers at our universities to advance science in critical areas such as manufacturing, water treatment and beehive health,” UNC System President Peter Hans said. “I’m grateful to the General Assembly for its strong support of the UNC Research Opportunities Initiative, a program that benefits North Carolinians and the future of our state.”

The grant will run through June 2024.