ISTC awarded over $400,000 to assist Illinois manufacturers

ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program has been awarded over $400,000 in EPA grants to assist manufacturers with improving their bottom line by greening their operations. Assistance under these grants are provided at no-cost to participating companies.

The funds cover work with manufacturers and their supporting industries across many sectors including:

ISTC Technical Assistance Program scientists work collaboratively to identify and promote sustainable manufacturing at the product, process and system level, resulting in minimized waste, improved energy and resource efficiency, reduced negative environmental impacts and increased profitability.

For additional information, please contact Irene Zlevor | | 217.300.8617.

Webinar: Pollution Prevention Opportunities for Ammonia Emissions in the Food and Beverage Sector

Register today for a free webinar from the US EPA, Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM CST.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) will cover their recently completed food and beverage pollution prevention (P2) work funded under EPA Region 5’s Pollution Prevention Grant Program. The webinar will provide attendees with:

  • an overview of the sources of emissions of ammonia from the industrial refrigeration systems commonly used in food and beverage processing facilities;
  • a summary of refrigerant inventory determination methods for industrial ammonia systems, including an Ammonia Inventory Calculator, which is a new online resource to estimate the operating charge of existing systems; and
  • the use of dynamic charge calculations for flagging refrigerant losses from systems that would otherwise go undetected.

Applications of these methods, along with best practices for identifying and eliminating fugitive ammonia leaks identified during fieldwork in Wisconsin food and beverage plants will also be discussed.


  • Douglas Reindl, Ph.D., P.E., Professor UW-Madison & Director of the Industrial Refrigeration Consortium
  • Marc Claas, Researcher, UW-Madison’s Industrial Refrigeration Consortium

University of Wisconsin-Madison logo

Industrial Refrigeration Consortium logo




Register online at

Questions? Please contact Christine Anderson, US EPA Region 5.


Sierra Club of Illinois hosts panel discussion on PFAS with Rob Bilott, John Scott, other water advocates

On Monday, October 5, the Sierra Club of Illinois hosted a conversation about PFAS with Rob Bilott,  an attorney, advocate, and author whose story inspired the film Dark Waters; ISTC senior chemist John Scott; Fred Andes, a Chicago attorney whose practice focuses on water issues; Cheryl Sommer,  vice-President of United Congregations Metro-East.

A recording of the conversation is now available.

Caseyville Wastewater Treatment Plant saves energy, money with ISTC assessment and Ameren Illinois incentives

The Caseyville Township Water Reclamation Facility recently received a free facility assessment through Illinois EPA’s Wastewater Treatment Plant Energy Assessment Program. The program is a partnership between Illinois EPA, ISTC, and the University of Illinois’ Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC).

ISTC conducted the assessment in July 2019 and identified several ways to reduce energy use, including upgrading to LED lighting and  installing variable frequency drives on blower motors. The plant used Ameren Illinois Energy Efficiency Program incentives to help fund the upgrades.

Altogether, the lighting and motor upgrades will reduce the township’s energy use by more than 2.3 million kilowatt-hours every year and deliver six-figure savings in annual energy costs.

Read the full Ameren Illinois case study detailing the upgrades.

New project uses biochar to absorb excess nutrients from tile drainage

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

In a new $1 million three-year project, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) researchers will develop a bioreactor and biochar-sorption-channel treatment system to remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus from tile drainage water, which will reduce nutrient loss from crop fields to local waterways.

Excess nutrients in surface water contribute to harmful algal blooms that produce toxins and threaten the health of water ecosystems. A variety of treatment techniques have been studied to reduce nutrient losses.

Woodchip bioreactors, which are buried trenches, have proven to be a cost-effective and sustainable solution to reduce nitrate-nitrogen loss from tile-drained crop fields. However, concentrations of ammonium-nitrogen are often elevated after water has flowed through a bioreactor. Also, woodchip bioreactors do not have a significant effect on phosphorus removal.

Principal investigator Wei Zheng and colleagues plan to develop an innovative treatment system by integrating woodchip bioreactor and designer biochar treatment techniques to reduce the losses of both nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from tile drainage.

Designer biochars are applied in biochar-sorption-channels to capture dissolved phosphorus and ammonium-nitrogen simultaneously. Researchers will seek to produce the most efficient designer biochars by pyrolysis of biomass pretreated with lime sludge.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded project will evaluate the new system by conducting a scale-up field study at a commercial corn production farm.

Researchers will also apply the nutrient-captured biochars as a soil amendment and a slow-release fertilizer in fields to improve soil fertility.

The results from this project will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nutrient management practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and offer an innovative, feasible, and cost-effective practice to mitigate the excess nutrient loads to watersheds, prevent and control algal blooms, and improve agricultural sustainability.

Media contact: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276,,

New project is set to find ways to manage emerging contaminants

By Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

Scientists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are tackling the issue of pharmaceutical contaminants from irrigation with rural sewage effluents in a newly funded project.

Collaborating with the Illinois State Water Survey, principal investigator Wei Zheng has begun a three-year study to investigate emerging contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), in fields irrigated with effluents from rural sewage treatment plants and to develop effective strategies to reduce the amount of contaminants transported to surface or groundwater.

Rural sewage effluent has great potential as an alternative to irrigation water, yet there are concerns about possible negative effects. Rural treatment plants are less effective at removing PPCPs compared to municipal wastewater treatment plants. Therefore, the use of effluents might pose a risk to surface and groundwater ecosystems.

Also, field tile drainage systems, which are commonly used in the Midwest, may accelerate the losses of these chemical contaminants from agricultural soils to nearby watersheds. The potential negative effects of using rural sewage effluent to irrigate tile-drained fields are essentially unknown.

In this project, the research team will conduct a series of laboratory, field, and numerical modeling studies to investigate the processes affecting contaminant transport, track the occurrence of PPCPs, and develop two cost-effective control techniques, oil capture and biochar-sorption channels.

The results will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nontraditional water-use practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and suggest best management strategies to minimize risks and promote the safe and beneficial use of nontraditional water in agriculture.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Media contact: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276,

People of PRI: Sarmila Katuwal, Visiting Scientific Specialist-Research Engineer

Sarmila Katuwal wears a cloth face covering and standard lab PPE while checking the phosphorous concentration of a designer biochar.
Sarmila Katuwal wears a cloth face covering and standard lab PPE while checking the phosphorous concentration of a designer biochar.


Sarmila Katuwal is involved in two research projects at ISTC. The first, led by B.J. Sharma, focuses on optimization of kraft lignin depolymerization. In the second, led by Wei Zheng, she is working on design of a biochar to capture dissolved phosphorous and ammonia nitrogen from tile drainage water.

Now that the state of Illinois has entered phase 4 of its COVID recovery plan and Katuwal is back in the lab, she talks about what has changed due to COVID-19.

Q. What precautions and safety procedures are you employing to reduce risk? 

The new safety protocols and guidelines by ISTC has made our work lot easier during this crisis. I am strictly using a face mask, practicing social distancing, and avoiding using common spaces in the office, like the lunchroom and conference room. Also, I wear proper PPE (like gloves, lab coat, eye glass) while conducting my research in the lab and do frequent hand cleaning and sanitizing.

The new one-way traffic flow system in the office building and one-person-per-lab rule has helped to reduce the possibility of social contact. In addition, I strictly follow lab cleaning protocols, which involves sanitizing the instruments and work area before and after conducting the experiment.

Q. Are there new challenges that have arisen in the lab?

The new challenges are mostly getting accustomed to new health safety protocols and making sure to follow the procedures strictly to keep myself and others safe. Also, when wearing a face mask and eyeglass together, sometimes, if the face mask is not fitted properly your eyeglass becomes foggy.

I am happy with ISTC’s current protocols, and I hope they will continue, too.

This post originally appeared on the People of PRI blog. Read the original post.

ISTC researchers develop improved method for microplastics analysis

Since the emergence of mass-produced plastics in the 1940s, the global appetite for these materials has rapidly increased. Estimates of cumulative plastic waste generated are as much as 6.3 billion metric tons. Less than 10% of this material is recycled, while nearly 80% is sent to landfills or released into the natural environment. Because of this, microplastics are now ubiquitous in the environment. Their presence has been detected in surface waters, groundwater sources such as Karst waters, sediments, wildlife, and even consumer products.

The major drawback with current microplastic sample preparation and counting is that researchers use different methods. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was the first to publish a standard method to measure these materials. However, it only addressed large plastic debris in surface water and beach samples. Furthermore, it can only isolate and account for materials with a density less than 1.2 g/cm3. Many microplastics, including polyvinyl chloride, polyesters, and fluoropolymers, have a density greater than 1.3 g/cm3 and are unaccounted for in preparation by NOAA’s method.

When the researchers analysed samples from the Lake Muskegon and Missouri surface waters, they discovered that they would have missed the most abundant microplastics, those less than 300 µm, if they had processed them using the standard NOAA method. Their new method achieves a lower size detection limit and greater microplastic density limit.

The researchers also designed an innovative reporting method that uses detailed size measurements of the microplastic in the sample. This new approach for data reporting allows researchers to estimate the mass of microplastics present. This measurement is important because although particle sizes can change in a sample, the overall mass remains the same.

Following development, the researchers demonstrated the method with surface waters collected from three locations and fish larvae samples archived by the Illinois Natural History Survey.

The work is detailed in ISTC’s new research report, Development and Demonstration of a Superior Method for Microplastics Analysis: Improved Size Detection Limits, Greater Density Limits, and More Informative Reporting.

People of PRI: Kirtika Kohli, Postdoctoral Research Associate

Postdoctoral researcher Kirtika Kohli wears the required cloth face covering and personal protective equipment while working in the lab at ISTC.
Postdoctoral researcher Kirtika Kohli wears the required cloth face covering and personal protective equipment while working in the lab at ISTC.

This post originally appeared on the People of PRI blog.

ISTC postdoctoral researcher Kirtika Kohli is working on a project led by B.K. Sharma to develop novel catalysts for making chemicals from CO2. As the state of Illinois has entered phase 4 of COVID recovery, Kohli has been able to return to work in the lab while observing appropriate precautions, including wearing a face mask and following designated one-way paths while entering, leaving, and moving about the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center facility.

Only a single person works in the lab at a time, but Kohli says “Still I feel I need to be very careful, not for me only but for others, too.”

Q. What precautions and safety procedures are you employing to reduce risk while working in the lab? 

When I enter the lab, I follow the standard lab safety procedures, including putting on a lab coat, a pair of gloves, and eye googles (to protect my eyes). I also disinfect all the lab surfaces, such as benchtops, fume hood, reactor surfaces, etc.

After I am done with my work in the lab, I clean the lab space and eye goggles with disinfectant, discard the gloves in a trash bag, remove my lab coat, and wash my hands with soap at least two times. As I am leaving the facility, I pass multiple disinfecting stations, so I make sure to use hand sanitizer each time.

As a researcher, our minds are often thinking about experiments, so the posted signs that explain the guidelines about room occupancy, restroom use, social distancing, etc. are good to remind us.

Following a single path to enter and a single path to exit the facility sometimes gives you a smile, like you are playing some game in which you need to follow red big signs!

Q. Are there new challenges that arise because of these precautions?

Wearing a mask all the time—sometimes it feels OK and sometimes it is irritating. The major challenge is to speak loudly while wearing a mask when you are in a conference call.

People of PRI: Angela DiAscro, field chemist

Field chemist Angie DiAscro wears a mask while performing titrations with her travel kit during a site visit.
Field chemist Angie DiAscro wears a mask while performing titrations with her travel kit during a site visit.

This post originally appeared on the People of PRI blog.

Angela DiAscro is a field chemist with the Institutional Water Treatment program, which provides water treatment advice to facilities with institutional water systems including cooling towers, chillers, boilers, etc. Like many people, she spent a large part of the spring working from home but has recently been able to resume field activities, while observing proper COVID-19 precautions.

Q. What is your role with the Institutional Water Treatment program? 

I am a field chemist who travels throughout Illinois to sites, where I test boiler, cooling, softener water, etc. to make sure the systems have appropriate treatment levels. This helps the systems run more efficiently and have a longer lifespan. I often go to state police sites, correctional centers, veterans homes, some universities, and historical sites.

Q. Now that the state of Illinois has entered phase 4 of its COVID recovery plan and you’re back in the field, what precautions and safety procedures are you employing to reduce risk? 

There are three of us who travel and each of us are, of course, wearing masks when we are at a site. We often interact with engineers at least part of the time we are on site and it is nice to see that many of the engineers are wearing masks, too.

Each of us have our own rental vehicles to travel and instead of renting them daily or weekly as we did previously, we rent them for a whole month to cut back on the number of different cars we interact with. We are currently training our newest field chemist, so instead of riding in the same car to sites, now he has to arrive in his own rental car and we do our best to stay 6 feet apart while we are at the site together.

We were not encouraged to stay in hotels when we started travelling again, either. Before the pandemic I would stay in one to two hotels a week for work, but now we are mostly doing day trips. Currently we have received the okay to stay in large chain hotels as long as we take disinfectant wipes/ sprays with us.

I keep hand sanitizer in the rental car and use it whenever I stop for food or gas. Before I leave a site, I wash my hands with soap and water for 20 seconds if it is available. I also try to use my own pen whenever I need to sign in or out at certain sites.

The bottom line though, is that we don’t need to do anything that we are not comfortable with (e.g. stay in a hotel, go to sites in high COVID areas), which I really appreciate.

Angie and her colleague Cameron observe appropriate precautions by using separate vehicles to travel to a site visit at Dickson Mounds State Museum.
Angie and her colleague Cameron observe appropriate precautions by using separate vehicles to travel to a site visit at Dickson Mounds State Museum.

Q. What new challenges do these unusual times and new precautions create? 

Since we drive individual cars now and aren’t staying in hotels as often, I have had several 12+ hour days. My farthest site is ~3.5 hours away, in southern Illinois, so to do that in one day is already seven hours of travel. Without someone else in the car with you, it gets very tiring.

Many of the places we go do not have air conditioning and there is extra heat given off by the boiler or other systems present in the same room, so it can get above 95 degrees F. Now that I wear a mask while performing the site visit, I make sure I have water, a decent lunch, and hopefully a place to sit to take extra breaks while enduring the heat. Besides the heat, wearing a mask can be challenging because people can’t hear me, so I need to speak up.

Also, people can’t tell when I am smiling but hopefully they can see it from my eyes because I usually am!

Q. Is there anything else you’d like the institutions and people you work with to know? 

I miss seeing a lot of people and it is harder to get simple questions answered or papers signed since I can’t just walk to someone’s office, but I’m glad people are taking this seriously and doing what we can to keep ourselves and others safe.