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.

New publication: Advancing Pilot-Scale Integrated Systems for Algal Carbon Capture and Biofuel Production

In this research study, funded by ISTC’s Sponsored Research Program, Lance Schideman and his team partnered with Abbott Power Plant and the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District to address critical challenges to practical demonstrations of biological CO2 capture systems and subsequent thermochemical conversion of biomass to biofuels.

The researchers developed the capability to harvest and store actual power plant flue gas samples in pressurized cylinders, then used these samples to study acclimation in algae cultivation systems dosed with flue gas. The project also demonstrated the use of anaerobic digestion to recover residual energy from the aqueous byproduct of hydrothermal liquefaction (HTLaq), which is generated during the conversion of algae or other organic feedstocks to biofuels.

This study showed that mixed culture algae are capable of using CO2 in flue gas, and the impact of the flue gas on algal growth rates was positive. Because higher flue gas injection rates resulted in higher productivity and lower CO2 removal efficiency, higher flue gas injection rates are preferable when the CO2 source is cheap and algae are considered the main product. Low flue gas injection rates would be preferable when the CO2 source is expensive or the CO2 removal efficiency is important. Heavy metal analysis showed that algal biomass will accumulate Zn, Pb, and Cu from flue gas, which can exceed certain animal feed regulatory limits.

This work also demonstrated that anaerobic treatment of HTLaq in combination with sewage sludge is feasible in both lab- and full-scale applications, which highlights the potential for enhancing energy recovery from sewage sludge through integration of hydrothermal liquefaction  (HTL) technology with municipal wastewater treatment. Overall, this study highlights that integrating HTL technology with existing municipal sludge anaerobic digesters could significantly improve the bioenergy production of municipal wastewater treatment systems by 50 to 70% at a cost that is favorable compared to other alternatives.

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Two new ISTC technical reports now available

ISTC has published two new technical reports. In Yet-to-emerge contaminants in the Great Lakes region: Analytical method development and measurement of concentrations in a Great Lakes fish, researchers developed a screening method to extract and analyze a group of ten persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) substances and applied those methods to measure the concentrations of those compounds in lake trout collected from Lake Michigan.

In Occurrence and Fate of the Herbicide Glyphosate in Tile Drainage and Receiving Rivers in East Central Illinois, researchers developed an analytical method to monitor the occurrence of the herbicide glyphosate and its metabolite, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), in tile drain water and receiving river water collected in east central Illinois agricultural lands. The developed method was then used to monitor glyphosate and AMPA in tile drainage and their receiving watersheds (e.g., the Spoon River and Salt Fork).  Additional data collected during this study are available in Woodword, et al (2019). “Fate and transport of nitrapyrin in agroecosystems: Occurrence in agricultural soils, subsurface drains, and receiving streams in the Midwestern US.” Science of The Total Environment 650(2), 2830-2841.

Air, Water, Soil: Prairie Research Institute Researchers Host Chinese Peers


SoyFace research site
SoyFace studies methods to enhance agricultural yields today and in the face of changing climatic conditions.

Scientists from seven Chinese universities visited the University of Illinois July 11-13 to compare research goals and approaches in their efforts for cleaner air, water and soil.
The Prairie Research Institute (PRI) China Workshop deepened relationships begun in recent years by environmental experts of both countries to strengthen scientific collaborations. The workshop examined environmental concerns about air, water, and soil pollution that are of mutual interest to help solve a wide range of critical issues in these areas.



weather and air quality monitoring site
PRI’s Illinois State Water Survey maintains one of the nation’s most comprehensive weather and air quality monitoring sites.

The Chinese visitors represented the College of Civil Engineering at Nanjin University, Jiangsu Insitute of Environmental Industry, the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at Tongji University, the School of Environmental Engineering and Sciences of North China Electric Power University, the College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at Peking University, Chongqing Institute of Green and intelligent Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the School of Space and Environment at Beihang University, and Beijing Dopler Eco-Technologies Co.
The visitors also sampled a number of high-profile U of I research projects including agricultural enhancement at SoyFace (top), weather and air quality monitoring (second from top) and (third from top) soil reclamation (Mud-to-Parks dredging project at Lake Decatur).



topsoil recovery project at Lake Decatur
PRI’s Illinois Sustainable Technology Center has pioneered the recovery of lake and river sediments (here from Lake Decatur) for use as high quality top soil.

Wide-ranging technical presentations during the workshop included focuses on:
• air pollution modeling, health effects and remediation;
• surface and groundwater contamination and new treatment strategies; and
• soil contamination prevention and remediation.


Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin (bottom) welcomed the Chinese scientists, describing the long history of friendship and cooperation between cities and universities in China.



Urbana mayor marlin toasted Chinese visitors
Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin toasted the success of the PRI/China research collaboration.




New Research Helps Narrow the Choice Between Affordable and Long-Lasting Roads

recycled materials used in road construction
Recycled asphalt is widely used in road construction to minimize waste and reduce costs. A new study of the chemical and physical characteristics of the material will allow stronger roads.     Courtesy IDOT Bureau of Materials and Physical Research


A two-year study of asphalt binders will improve the use of recycled material in making long-lasting roads.


Asphalt binders, a key to affordable, long-lasting roads, have surrendered some of their secrets thanks to a two-year examination of their chemistry and composition.


Research led by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute, in a partnership with the Illinois Center for Transportation (ICT) and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), advances knowledge of the role of chemistry and composition on asphalt binders’ performance and proposes new testing thresholds that can supplement existing highway quality assurance programs.


It has long been known that recycling asphalt pavement materials and roofing shingles into new pavement lowers costs, but this can also result in pavement brittleness and faster aging. Still the practice is very common in Illinois and elsewhere in the United States. According to the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), asphalt pavement is being recycled and reused at a rate over 99 percent, and recycling efforts in 2010 alone conserved 20.5 million barrels of asphalt binder.


“Even with non-recycled road pavement materials, the optimal mix of binders and aggregates is a delicate balance. Add to that calculation more variables from utilizing various recycled binders and the confidence of producing durable and long-lasting roads becomes more difficult,” according to Brajendra K. Sharma, senior research engineer at ISTC.


The final report, “Modeling the Performance of RAS (Recycled Asphalt Shingles) and RAP (Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement) Blended Asphalt Mixes Using Chemical Compositional Information,” was published by ICT, also at the U of I.


This study takes a close look at the elemental and chemical composition of binders and how they age. Field performance of various asphalt binder materials to resist cracking and permanent deformation under the traffic loading (rheology) and environmental fluctuations was correlated to the composition and chemical characteristics of binder materials.


Recycled asphalt is widely used in road construction
Courtesy IDOT Bureau of Materials and Physical Research

A variety of different tests, parameters, and component markers have been developed worldwide over the years to ensure long-lasting roadways. This work also evaluates which diagnostic approaches work best, as well as how the use of recycled or reclaimed materials affects performance, by combining chemical and compositional characterization tests with the rheological tests.


“This research is aimed at reconciling the sometimes conflicting goals of affordably maintaining our quality transportation system and maximizing sustainable construction practices,” said Sharma, lead author of the study.


“A better understanding of asphalt binders’ chemistry and composition in combination with its fundamental rheological properties is critical to achieve good performing and long-lasting pavements. Such a holistic characterization of binder became even more important with the number of recycled constituents, additives, and modifiers that have increased dramatically over the years.” according to Hasan Ozer, research assistant professor at ICT.


Based on the combined results of rheological characteristics, chemistry, and composition, it was concluded that asphalt concrete prepared with high levels of recycled roofing shingles along with reclaimed asphalt concrete could have increased short- and long-term cracking potential. The aging progresses much faster and their lifetime starts at an already critically aged condition because of the high recycled content in the pavement.


The study also provides preliminary recommendations and an implementation plan with critical thresholds that can be obtained from series of chemical, compositional, and rheological tests. The proposed tiered approach can be used by IDOT and other highway authorities to supplement existing asphalt binder quality assurance programs and material selection.


The issue of optimal use of recycled road materials is an important one for transportation officials nationwide. This study is an outgrowth of a 2015 ICT study that last year received the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ “Sweet Sixteen High Value Research” projects award. That study, “Testing Protocols to Ensure Performance of High Asphalt Binder Replacement Mixes Using RAP and RAS,” introduced a semi-circular bending test (IL-SCB) coupled with a flexibility index (FI) for testing of fracture potential.


Co-authors of the latest study are Jing Ma, Punit Singhvi and Hasan Ozer, of the U of I department of civil and environmental engineering, and Bidhya Kunwar and Nandakishore Rajagopalan of ISTC.


Challenges of Carbon Utilization Have Regional Solutions

istc director kevin o'brien speaks at technology summit in San Antonio Texas
Advances in carbon utilization technology holds diverse options for job and economic development, according to ISTC Director Kevin O’Brien.

Emerging technologies for carbon dioxide (CO2) utilization present significant opportunities for job creation and economic growth, said Kevin O’Brien, director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a presentation to the Eighth Carbon Dioxide Utilization Summit Feb. 22 in San Antonio, Texas.


But success in deriving those benefits from carbon utilization depends on the assets (economic and human) of each particular region, O’Brien emphasized to energy, chemical, plastics, and construction industry leaders at the conference.


Mature regional partnerships for workforce development, higher education, economic development, government support, and responsive research and development capabilities are some of the factors that contribute to development of a sustainable CO2 value chain.


O’Brien pointed to reasons why Illinois, where coal underlies nearly the entire state and remains a $2.5 billion annual industry, is seizing on every advantage it has to align with the potential of carbon utilization innovations.


  • Illinois research universities have leading programs in engineering, engineering geology, carbon capture, and other scientific innovation. One example is the use of CO2 as a fertilizer substitute at the University of Illinois. In a major agricultural state with nutrient loss problems and where the climate is expected to reduce carbon retention in soil, synergies abound.
  • College curricula, community colleges, economic development professionals, political leaders, and employers are already connected to existing supply chains.
  • The University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute, ISTC’s parent organization, has assembled decades-long reservoirs of valuable data on Illinois weather, regional climate, soil, groundwater, stream flow, and other factors that is relevant to an economic pivot toward carbon utilization.


On the research front, a Midwest Regional Approach to Carbon Utilization workshop is being planned for June 28 by co-organizers ISTC, the Gas Technology Institute, and the Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.


Other regions will have different assets and opportunities. For instance, carbon utilization will necessitate pipelines or another cost-effective transportation method for captured CO2. Markets with a track record for facilitating transportation will be ahead of the game, O’Brien said.

Tiny Scavenger Proves Apex Predator in Oil Spill Clean Up

nano-carboscavenger particles are small
Two-layered Nano-CarboScavengers have properties to both clump oil spill sheen and disperse them for bacterial digestrion.

When there is an oil spill in a body of water, booms are used to contain it so the contamination can be collected. The aftermath still leaves a sheen of oil that response teams then attempt to keep from devastating the natural environment.

What do they do? They dump chemicals into the water which may be as bad environmentally as the oil.

Enter engineers and chemists from the University of Illinois College of Engineering and ISTC with a new tool to more truly eliminate the damage from oil spills. They have developed microscopic carbon particles they call Nano-CarboScavengers which work in two ways. They have the ability to attract oil and swell in size, creating visible clumps which can be scooped up. The tiny spheres also reduce the surface tension of polluted water, giving natural microorganisms a chance to digest petroleum compounds into harmless components.

Let’s hear it for the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) which showed confidence in Bioengineer Dipanjan Pan and the team to provide them with seed money to develop the idea in 2015. Now the work is published in Nature Publishing. iSEE’s website has the full story.

In Race to Capture Carbon Dioxide, Remember the Need to Use It

Kevin O'Brien at the International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Technologies
ISTC Director Kevin O’Brien spoke in Lausanne, Switzerland today on the importance of developing new uses for ‘waste’ carbon dioxide.

The capture and utilization of CO2 provides a unique opportunity to create jobs and build new markets. Illinois is leading this charge, said ISTC Director Kevin O’Brien today in a presentation at the International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Technologies (GHGT-13) in Lausanne, Switzerland.


While research on economical technologies to capture and store CO2 is a priority at the University of Illinois and around the world, it is equally important to develop new approaches to monetize and utilize the gas as a commodity, O’Brien said.


He outlined the Carbon Dioxide Utilization and Reduction (COOULR) Center being formed at the University’s Prairie Research Institute. He called this effort a model for other communities committed to creating jobs and accelerating economic engines.


The University’s openness to discovery and innovation, coupled with the U of I’s interest in becoming carbon neutral by 2050 makes for a fortunate confluence of factors. “There is a need to be able to explore a multitude of utilization approaches in order to identify a portfolio of potential utilization mechanisms,” he said. “This portfolio must be adapted based on the economy of the region.”


The Carbon Dioxide Utilization and Reduction (COOULR) Center being formed at the University's Prairie Research Institute.
The Carbon Dioxide Utilization and Reduction (COOULR) Center being formed at the University’s Prairie Research Institute is intended to be a model for other communities to explore new uses for captured CO2.

A research effort like the COOULR Center “is one of the key steps in the formation of a market for captured CO2,” he added. “The goal of the Center is to not only evaluate technologies, but also demonstrate at a large pilot scale how communities may be able to monetize captured CO2.”


The GHGT Conference is held every two years by the International Energy Agency‘s (IEA) Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme. The IEA consists of the U.S. and 28 other industrialized nations that work to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy supplies.


Co-authors of the paper delivered by O’Brien are: Yongqi Lu, Sallie Greenberg, Randall Locke (Illinois State Geological Survey); Vinod Patel (ISTC); Michael Larson (U of I’s Abbott Power Plant); Krish R. Krishnamurthy, Makini Byron, Joseph Naumovitz (Linde LLC); and David S. Guth, Stephen J. Bennett (Affiliated Engineers Inc. (AEI)). The university team and the private partners are currently involved in major research projects to test advanced carbon capture systems at the University’s power plant.

Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award, Illinois R&D Demonstrate Growing Commitment to Sustainable World

carbon capture and utilization research
ISTC Director Kevin O’Brien discusses new research in carbon capture and utilization at the Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award event in Chicago Nov. 1.


On Friday Nov. 4, the Paris Agreement on climate change became official. The U.S., China, and 53 other nations have ratified the treaty representing half of the world’s carbon emissions.


“The politically difficult step was Paris,” said Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University was quoted today in The Wall Street Journal. “The technically difficult steps now remain.”


While a new administration in Washington could scuttle the U.S. commitment to the international pact, undoubtedly innovation will be essential to decarbonize the atmosphere. Action was evident Nov. 1 at the Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Awards event in Chicago. From towns and neighborhoods to major corporations, the 25 winners for 2016 demonstrated significant ownership of the need to reduce our carbon footprint.


Also on Nov. 4, Shell, BP, and eight other oil and gas giants announced an industry collaboration creating a $1 billion investment fund to accelerate carbon capture and storage and energy efficiency over the next 10 years.


The Prairie Research Institute and its Illinois Sustainable Technology Center are also working to be impactful on a grand scale. PRI’s effort to outfit the power plant at the University of Illinois with next-generation carbon capture represents a collaboration of multinational corporations with state and university partners. Success could be a game-changer for coal- and gas-fired power plants around the world.


Another major research project at ISTC could turn wastewater treatment in America from a cost sink and carbon producer, into a profit center and a carbon sink.


“Our approach is to simultaneously work toward sustainable and renewable energy, while taking responsibility for reducing the problems caused by traditional energy sources,” said Kevin C. O’Brien, ISTC director.


ISTC Sponsored Research Evaluates Acoustic Leak Detection Network

water leak detection sensors in fire hydrants
A technology demonstration in a greater Chicago neighborhood tested acoustic sensors designed to detect water leaks through a network permanently installed in fire hydrants.



ISTC’s  Billion Gallon Water Challenge has released a video of its research collaboration with American Water and Echologics to demonstrate new leak detection technology for residential drinking water distribution systems.


Last year the research partners tested the effectiveness of Echologics’ acoustic sensors (designed to be permanently) placed in fire hydrants in a greater Chicago neighborhood — in a multi-channel wireless network to provide real-time 24/7 leak detection in buried distribution systems and demonstrated accuracy of 90 percent.


one billion gallon water challengeThe technology demonstration was one of ISTC’s Billion Gallon Water Challenge (BGWC) research projects which aimed at saving freshwater resources at multiple levels. A case study on this and other BGWC research is available on ISTC’s website. The technology demonstration was also featured by in “Sound Sensors Can Detect Water Pipe Leaks.”


In the BGWC video, Kevin Hillen, Illinois American Water operations superintendent, explains that 12-15 percent of water in the Chicago area is lost to leaks.  As water pipe infrastructure continues to age, a greater proportion of potable water will be lost without proactive leak detection and pipe replacement efforts, he added.


“Leaks have a distinct sound signature,” according to Eric Stacey, Echologics product manager. “Leaks occur in specific frequency bands for different materials of pipe,” he explained. In cast iron pipes, for instance, leaks produce a sound at about 300 Hz. “It’s audible, the human ear can hear it, and it stands out from a normal pipeline operation.”


map of sensor network placement
Networked together, an array of acoustic sensors can pinpoint water leaks as they form.

Economics determines the acceptable level of leakage in a water system. In suburban Chicago, where the cost of water exceeds $5 per 1,000 gallons, the necessity of minimizing leaks is greater than average. At the lower end, water can be delivered in some areas for as little as $0.35 per 1,000 gallons.


The installation successfully zeroed in on leaks forming in the American Water distribution system in a neighborhood near Des Plaines, IL. Correlating the data with specialized algorithms, “we were able to show leaks that formed and we were able to show water savings,” Stacey said.


BGWC research is funded by the Illinois Hazardous Waste Research Fund.