ISTC researcher demonstrates nutrient reduction project at Fulton County Field Day

On July 16, farmers and researchers came together at Fulton County Field Day. The event allowed researchers to showcase peer-reviewed applied science and demonstrate to working farmers that these conservation practices work. Individual farmers could then take aspects of what they learned and apply it in on their land.

ISTC researcher Wei Zheng demonstrated the system he has developed  for using biochar to recycle nutrients from tile drainage systems. The project is funded through a grant from the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC).

The event was hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau, Fulton County Farm Bureau, Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Prairie Research Institute and University of Illinois Extension. Read more about the event in FarmWeek.





ISTC will feature biochar research at Fulton County Field Day

ISTC’s Wei Zheng will showcase his research project “Designer Biochar to Capture and Recycle Phosphorous from Tile Drainage Systems” at the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Fulton County Field Day on July 16.

Zheng and team have proposed to combine a woodchip bioreactor with designer biochar at the tile drain outlet to capture phosphorus within the biochar. The biochar can be removed from the bioreactor system periodically and spread over the field as a form of slow release phosphorus fertilizer. They predict that the system will prevent excess nutrients from the phosphorus from entering local waterways and, if used throughout Illinois farmlands, will help reduce Illinois nutrient load to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

Besides an inside look at Zheng’s research, the Field Day will feature additional research tours on vegetative buffer strips and drainage water recycling at the MWRD site, 15779 County Road 5, Cuba, IL. Registration starts at 11 a.m., followed by the tours from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Attendance is free, and lunch will be provided. Pre-registration is still available by calling the Fulton County Farm Bureau at 309-547-3011 or emailing at

Food and beverage manufacturers learn new sustainability approaches at ISTC workshop

On June 20, twenty-one people from seven different food manufacturing companies gathered in Champaign to learn how to take sustainability to the next level at a workshop sponsored by ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program, the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC), Ameren Illinois, and Energy Resources Group, Inc.

Speakers updated the  attendees on:

  • energy efficiency opportunities for food manufacturers
  • ways to use renewables to make facilities net-zero enery
  • improving water conservation by ensurinng proper water chemistry in water and wastewater treatment systems
  • case studies highlighting waste reduction and diversion best practices
  • safer sanitation methods through effective alternatives
  • LEAN for food and beverage manufacturing

Two companies requested a free technical assistance visit during the workshop. If you work for a food or beverage manufacturer and want to improve your operating performance, decrease your costs, and use fewer toxic chemicals, schedule your free on-site assessment today.

Download the workshop presentations here.

Biochar may boost carbon storage, but benefits to germination and growth appear scant

By Lois Yoksoulian, University of Illinois News Bureau

Biochar may not be the miracle soil additive that many farmers and researchers hoped it to be, according to a new University of Illinois study. Biochar may boost the agricultural yield of some soils – especially poor quality ones – but there is no consensus on its effectiveness. Researchers tested different soils’ responses to multiple biochar types and were unable to verify their ability to increase plant growth. However, the study did show biochar’s ability to affect soil greenhouse gas emissions. The new findings are published in the journal Chemosphere.

ISTC researchers Elizabeth Meschewski, left, and Nancy Holm and collaborators developed a systematic study to test the effectiveness of the soil additive biochar and found that it may not be as effective as previously thought.

Biochar additives – particles of organic material burned in a controlled oxygen-free process – provide soil with a form of carbon that is more resistant to microbial action than traditional, uncharred biomass additives. In theory, this property should allow soil to hold onto carbon for long-term storage, the researchers said, because it does not degrade as rapidly as other forms of carbon.

“There are conflicting reports on the effectiveness of biochar for use to increase crop production as well as its potential as a carbon-storage reservoir,” said Nancy Holm, an Illinois Sustainable Technology Centerresearcher and study co-author. “We came into this study suspecting that variations in types of biochar feedstock, preparation methods and soil composition were the cause of the conflicting results.”

Addressing past research inconsistencies, the team designed a systematic study using 10 common Illinois soil types to test the effects of mixing in varying concentrations of biochars from three different feedstocks – corn, Miscanthus and hardwood.

To add a dimension to the study that is common in real-world agricultural settings, the team also examined how two other sources of carbon – plant material burned in an uncontrolled open-atmosphere setting and corn stover – affect soils. Corn stover is composed of raw stalks, leaves and cobs that remain in the field after harvest.

Factoring in each scenario, triplicate analysis and control samples, the experiment produced 429 soil samples in which the researchers planted two corn seeds each.

After a 14-day germination period, the study showed that adding biochar from any of the feedstocks or production techniques had no substantial influence on the output of greenhouse gas production, plant growth dynamics or microbial community activity. However, the researchers did see some important differences in the soils that included corn stover and burnt plant material.

“The addition of corn stover – which simulates actual field conditions – led to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a change in the soil microbial community,” said Elizabeth Meschewski, an ISTC researcher and lead author of the study. “But, initial seedling growth was not affected when comparing these results to the soils with no additives. Addition of burnt plant material did show reduced plant biomass above ground, increased production of the greenhouse gas nitrogen oxide and altered soil microbial community.”

The team concluded that biochar might improve the quality of highly degraded or poor quality soils, but does not appear to provide any quality benefit to the soils used in this study. However, the researchers said that using biochar as an additive instead of raw biomass or burnt plant material could prevent microbe-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

The team acknowledges that a longer-period study is needed for a more comprehensive understanding of how biochar may benefit agriculture.

“For future studies, we recommend performing a similar study in many different soil types for the whole growing season for corn – not just 14 days – and possibly over several growing seasons,” said ISTC researcher and study co-author B.K. Sharma.

Kurt Spokas of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service and Nicole Minalt and John Kelly of Loyola University Chicago also contributed to this study.

The Russell and Helen Dilworth Memorial Fund at the U. of I. supported this study.

Meet Elizabeth Meschewski

Elizabeth Meschewski is a Senior Scientific Specialist with ISTC’s Sponsored Research, Public Engagement, and Communications team. She joined ISTC in 2011 as a research assistant in the ARIES group.

Beth communicates ISTC’s research and technical assistance activities by creating displays, posters, and website content. She  coordinates ISTC’s Sponsored Research Program, which is funded by the Illinois Hazardous Waste Research Fund (HWRF) and oversees projects funded through HWRF. She also organizes ISTC’s Sustainability Seminar series, the Emerging Contaminants in the Environment conference, and other research related events. She received the 2019 Distinguished Support Staff Award at the Prairie Research Institute’s annual Celebration of Excellence.

How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?

I can’t remember what age but it was pretty early in grade school. It was my dad who got me interested in science. We have watched a lot of Nature and Nova documentaries together. We also had about 13 acres of former pasture land surrounding my childhood home. I helped my dad in various capacities converting it back to natural habitat while growing up. We had several native tree planting events where we would use a homemade giant triangle with 10 foot sides to lay out where the trees would be planted so that they wouldn’t get crowded or shaded out when they got older. We’d also “animal watch” with binoculars on the back porch in the summer or while walking “the path” through our land.

Who or what drew you to your field of study?

I knew I wanted to do something related to the environment for most of my life. I considered meteorology (tornado chaser!) and volcanology but finally settled on geology to study the whole earth. While at university, I had the opportunity to take an environmental geology class and an environmental engineering class. These both discussed the issues of hazardous waste and release of toxins to the environment and how they traveled in the environment. I think this type of science is super interesting. We can track and predict where the “bad stuff” goes so we can fix it. Now I work with people who try to prevent this problem from happening.

What is the best part of your job at ISTC and what work are you most proud of?

I think the best part is being able to learn about many different types of science. Each of my colleagues work on different ways to help us become more sustainable through technology. Then I get to read/learn about it and translate it to our website. I’m also an organizational nerd. Another aspect of my job is planning an emerging contaminants conference, which lets me geek out on all the task lists to pull off an excellent event. Keeping up with emerging contaminants science is very interesting as well.

What’s your favorite work-related memory?

One of our projects involved converting waste plastic back into the oil from which it started. Then that oil could be converted into several different types of fuel including diesel and gasoline. To illustrate this concept, we took photos of me pretending to put a plastic bag into the fuel tank of one of our center vehicles. This photo definitely spoke a 1000 words.

What are common misconceptions about your career?

When I say I work at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, people often follow up with “oh so you work on solar panels and wind power?” I usually have to say something like “Well, not quite”. We actually work on cutting edge technology. Like what happens to solar panels when they are broken or no longer producing power economically? We’ve started a solar panel recycling initiative. We also work on ways to create energy from waste products and investigate emerging contaminants that have unknown or little known impacts on the environment.

What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?

I wish people understood that science is never done. Meaning that we might think we have a good understanding of some science today but then some discovery might be made that changes everything. We see this throughout history. One example is people used to think that the earth was a flat disk with defined edges instead of sphere, but Aristotle proposed the theory of a spherical earth with observational data – people saw different star patterns in the sky when traveling.

What advice would you give to future scientists?

Find your passion! As a scientist you can make a difference in both public and private realms. There is value in providing high quality scientific information to policy makers, taking discoveries to industry, and publishing papers.

If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?

I think I would be a construction worker / contractor. I’ve always liked problem solving and putting together puzzles / box furniture. Working on a construction site seems like a good combination of both (from my limited knowledge of the field).

100 Plastic Rivers project tracks the sources of plastic pollution from river to sea

Plastic pollution has become recognized as a major environmental challenge, particularly in oceans. Recent evidence also shows that plastics are also present in freshwater ecosystems, including the Great Lakes. This not only affects human health and aquatic ecosystems, but also provides another pathway for plastics to enter marine environments.

A global initiative called the 100 Plastic Rivers Project investigates how plastics are transported and transformed in rivers and how they accumulate in river and estuary sediments, where they can leave a long-lasting pollution legacy. Researchers at the University of Birmingham lead the project.

Scientists at ISTC and at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) are participating in the 100 Plastic Rivers Project as part of a larger collaboration with the University of Birmingham.  One goal of the project is to collect water samples to test for microplastics from 100 different rivers from around the world. ISTC and ISWS researchers have collected water from two rivers in Central Illinois and are recruiting other U.S. researchers to join the project.

Researchers who are interested in collecting samples for the project can contact Dr. Holly Nel at the University of Birmingham.

Agricultural pollution associated with antibiotic resistance in bacteria

Pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants in the environment are a growing cause for concern. One particular issue is the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Agriculture is often noted as a source of excessive antibiotic use.  Over 70% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture. Overuse can encourage the selection of antibiotic-resistant genes (ARG).

To better understand the relationship between agricultural contamination and ARG abundance over a year-long period, ISTC researchers Wei Zheng and Laurel Dodgen contributed to a project led by Marquette University Professor Krassimira R. Hristova. The study was designed to characterize the emerging chemical contaminants and ARG profiles of 20 surface water locations in an area of Kewaunee County, WI which has an abundance of large-scale farms and where cattle outnumber humans 5 to 1. The team focused primarily on pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and hormones. ISTC’s role was to analyze the PPCPs and hormones in the collected river water and sediment samples to help establish the relationship with ARG.

The results of the study were published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology in 2018. They suggest that Kewaunee County river sediments accumulate contaminants from non-point sources at a higher rate when manure is applied to farmland than when it is not. If these contaminants contain antibiotics, they can either directly increase or co-select for the increase of ARGs in the environment. The study provides a better understanding of how confined animal feeding operations and manure- fertilized farmland impact environmental and human health.

Zheng continues to collaborate with Marquette researchers to determine the chlortetracycline residues in river sediments and water samples and investigate its environmental fate and potential effects. The goal is to evaluate the relationship between the development of chlortetracycline-derived ARG and contaminant residues in the environment.

Highlights from the 2019 Emerging Contaminants in the Environment conference

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant co-hosted the 2019 Emerging Contaminants Conference (ECEC19) on May 21-22 in Champaign, IL. The fourth annual conference featured presentations on the latest in emerging contaminant research, policies, and outreach strategies.

This year’s conference focused on a variety of pollutants in water, soil, and air ranging from pharmaceuticals, viruses, algal toxins and endocrine disruptors to pesticides, flame retardant chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and microplastics.

Scenes from the 2019 Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Conference

The conference speakers included:

  • Susan Richardson from the University of South Carolina, who discussed the state of the art and new discoveries in identification and analysis of emerging contaminants;
  • Thomas Bruton from the Green Science Policy Center, who encouraged attendees to move beyond a traditional risk management approach which deals with individual substances to think about emerging contaminants using a class-based approach. This  method would eliminate the need for testing and regulating each individual contaminant in a particular group of chemicals;
  • Robert Hale from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who explained that microplastics and megaplastics on land are just as big a concern as in water and that the many additives plastics make it very difficult to look at the effects they could potentially have on human and animal health.
  • Krista Wigginton from the University of Michigan, who spoke about new detection methods for viruses in drinking water; and
  • Katie Nyquist from the Minnesota Department of Public Health, who discussed how to effectively communicate with different audiences about the issue of emerging contaminants and the importance of getting good science out in the media to combat misinformation.

Other speakers addressed issues related to the public’s perceptions on plastics pollution; increased development of antimicrobial resistant bacteria; modeling contaminants; and new rapid detection methods for PFASs.

Poster session topics included microplastics as vectors for chemical contamination; concerns about nanoparticles in wastewater effluent; child care providers’ knowledge about environmental influences on children’s health; the impacts of emerging contaminants on amphibians and fish; and pharmaceutical disposal practices among veterinarians.

Learn more about the presentations and posters in the conference program booklet. Slides will be available on the conference website within the next two weeks. Details about specific ISTC research on emerging contaminants can be found on our website.

Meet Stephanie Brownstein

Stephanie Brownstein recently came to ISTC as a research engineer working on carbon capture and utilization projects. Prior to joining our staff, she worked as an environmental engineer in the food manufacturing industry.

What is your degree in and where did you graduate from?
B.S. Chemical Engineering – Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (2009)
M. Eng. Chemical Engineering – Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (2010)

How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I can’t call out a specific age, but as a little kid I always loved building with K’Nex and trying to understand how thing worked. I fondly remember making multiple trips to COSI science museum in Columbus, OH and the Museum of Science in Boston, MA.

Who or what drew you to your field of study?
My high school chemistry teacher Dr. Shaun Heale really pushed my interest in chemistry, and in college Professor Al Center was a wealth of knowledge about chemical engineering in industry. I had an internship in the oil drilling business and at that point made the decision I wanted to use my degree to improve the environment (sustainability, renewable energy, etc.) rather than perpetuate the energy status quo. Chemical engineering can apply to so many different industries, so it was a great springboard into environmental engineering.

What is your background before coming to work at ISTC?
I held multiple positions in the food manufacturing industry including Continuous Improvement Engineer, Environmental Engineer, and EH&S Manager.

What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at ISTC?
Working on projects that will support new technologies and policies to improve the environment, versus just enforcing existing regulations.

What are common misconceptions about your career?
That if you come from industry you don’t care about the environment, or that if you are a scientist you don’t care about business. It’s possible to have a balance.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Being able to implement environmental sustainability projects in the face of low utility prices. Influencing people was also challenging in a different way – it’s never simple trying to get 900 people in a facility to care about waste reduction.

What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
Contrary to popular belief, science is sexy! (I really don’t have a good answer for this one)

What advice would you give to future scientists?
Get exposure to as many experiences and fields of study as you can. Sometimes figuring out what you don’t want to do can help drive you towards your passion.

Any random facts you could share with us?
I am a CrossFit coach and love spending time outdoors.

Mud to Parks project reuses lost soil from lakes and rivers

By Lisa Sheppard

This is the first post in ISTC Impact, an occasional series highlighting the effect of some of ISTC’s long-running projects on the environment and economy of the state, region, and nation.

With one fresh idea and buy-in from state politicians and organizations, researchers in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) found a way to address the growing river sedimentation problem in Illinois, while also restoring waterways and habitat and moving healthy topsoil into cities.

The ISTC Mud to Parks project developed a blueprint for successfully recapturing one of Illinois’ finest resources: its soil.

“Soil is more valuable than oil,” said John Marlin, ISTC research affiliate, who originated the Mud to Parks idea and directed the project. “Yet we are treating soil today like it’s an unlimited resource, even as it erodes away.”

A crane removes sediment from Lower Peoria Lake during spring 2004. The dredging deepened a recreational boat channel at East Peoria. Care was taken to minimize water to reduce shipping costs. The barges traveled 165 miles to Chicago and were unloaded into trucks at the old US Steel South Works site.
A crane removes sediment from Lower Peoria Lake during spring 2004. The dredging deepened a recreational boat channel at East Peoria. Care was taken to minimize water to reduce shipping costs. The barges traveled 165 miles to Chicago and were unloaded into trucks at the old US Steel South Works site.



Trucks place the dredged material on a slag covered field that had no topsoil. It was spread to dry and temporarily seeded with grass.
Trucks place the dredged material on a slag covered field that had no topsoil. It was spread to dry and temporarily seeded with grass.

Soil from rural and urban areas washes into rivers and accumulates in backwaters and behind dams. Water levels in backwaters and side channels are becoming shallower as habitats deteriorate and areas can no longer be used for transportation and recreation. In the Illinois River’s Peoria Lake, levels have declined from 6 to 8 feet in the 1960s to 2 feet in recent years.

ISTC initiated a pilot project in 2004 after Marlin considered the sediment problem in Peoria Lake.  Sediment storage areas were scarce in Peoria, but the material could be deposited on a 500-acre U.S. Steel South Works redevelopment site to create a park.

“Engineers told me that it couldn’t be done,” Marlin said. “It would be too expensive to truck sediment 165 miles from Peoria to Chicago. It occurred to me that barges could be loaded directly from the lake, and using the river system, we could take the barges right to the site, which borders Lake Michigan.”

Most sediment was easily handled by trucks and bulldozers, although some was sticky and did not flow smoothly.
Most sediment was easily handled by trucks and bulldozers, although some was sticky and did not flow smoothly.
During the summer of 2004, botanists from the Illinois Natural History Survey identified plants growing in the placed sediment to determine if any non-native (invasive) species had been transported. The plants were all common to Illinois.
During the summer of 2004, botanists from the Illinois Natural History Survey identified plants growing in the placed sediment to determine if any non-native (invasive) species had been transported. The plants were all common to Illinois.

But first, many agencies and organizations had to come on board. At that time, Lt. Governor Pat Quinn coordinated their participation in an “unbelievable political operation,” Marlin said. Representatives and senators from the Democratic and Republican parties supported the project, along with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ISTC, the Illinois State Water Survey, the City of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, the City of East Peoria, and others.

Barges transported more than 80 loads of sediment to the Chicago site that summer. Once the sediment was removed from the barges, it was spread by bulldozer over 15 acres “like icing on a cake,” Marlin said. Over the winter, the sediment weathered to become loose soil, and eventually was used to plant grass, prairie vegetation and trees.

Two of the biggest advantages of the Mud to Parks initiative are the ability to help restore the aquatic habitat in Peoria Lake and to reclaim the sediment for use at restoration and construction sites.  This prevents native soil from being taken from farmland and suburban developments for new projects.

“This project provided a way to take Illinois soil that was washed off the land through erosion and reuse the soil by putting it back on the land,” Marlin said. “Once the sediment is washed into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s gone.”

Dr. Robert Darmody, a soil scientist at the University of Illinois, inspects sediment derived topsoil one year after removal from the lake.
Dr. Robert Darmody, a soil scientist at the University of Illinois, inspects sediment derived topsoil one year after removal from the lake.
Grass covered the sediment on the slag field by 2005. This 2013 photo shows grass and prairie plants thriving. This site, located at the end of 87th St. on Lake Michigan, also supports trees and paths in what is now called Steelworkers Park.
Grass covered the sediment on the slag field by 2005. This 2013 photo shows grass and prairie plants thriving. This site, located at the end of 87th St. on Lake Michigan, also supports trees and paths in what is now called Steelworkers Park.

The process that was developed through the Mud to Parks project proved to be successful, but also difficult to continue. There needs to be a dredging project at one end of the journey and both an operation and a space to place and reuse the sediment at the other end.  If commercial operations coordinated efforts to transport the sediment using barges and stockpile and dry the sediment-derived topsoil, they could mix in biosolids or compost for added nutrients if desired, then sell the topsoil at a profit, particularly in Chicago and St. Louis, where topsoil is expensive.

Mud to Parks project details are available in the ISTC Technical Report 068, Beneficial Use of Illinois River for Agricultural and Landscaping Applications and on the ISTC web site.