Alliance Helps Lead Major P Research Center

By Matt Scholz

The National Science Foundation has awarded $25 million to a major new phosphorus sustainability research initiative called the Science and Technologies for Phosphorus Sustainability (STEPS) Center. Headquartered at North Carolina State University, STEPS is the largest phosphorus sustainability program ever funded in the world. “This scale of research investment is required to address the wicked and time-sensitive challenges posed by the phosphorus sustainability problem in a way that can advance adoptable and sustainable solutions”, said STEPS Center Director, Dr. Jacob Jones of NCSU.

The Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance played a key role in the development of the proposal and will continue to help lead the knowledge transfer activities of the work, including its stakeholder engagement, public education, and IP aspects. The new Center is a natural evolution from the 2011 Phosphorus Sustainability Research Coordination Network (P-RCN) that was established under by our Director, Dr. Jim Elser, and managed in its later years by me. That project birthed the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance and developed a network of stakeholders that will be carried into the new STEPS center, creating a vast new network of researchers and practitioners both in North America and abroad.

The mission of the STEPS center is to make a transformative improvement in the sustainable management of the phosphorus cycle in 25 years, leading to enhanced resilience of the food system and reduced environmental pressures. This includes reducing both dependence on mined phosphates and losses of phosphorus via point and non-point sources.

The Center adopts a “convergence science” approach by bringing together a diverse set of disciplines that address scientific challenges spanning the molecular scale to the global scale. Researchers within the program hail from 9 different US institutions and have a wide range of expertise, including materials science; civil, chemical, environmental, genetic, and agricultural engineering; crop, soil, and water science; computer science; chemistry; economics; sociology; forestry; and education. Central to the project will be a unique informatics hub for collecting and curating multiform data that will be incorporated into customized machine learning and artificial intelligence frameworks to help drive innovation, particularly in the space of materials development.

Broadly, research integrates across three thematic areas:

  • Theme 1 integrates diverse expertise in materials informatics with physico-chemical and biological material design and analysis to develop novel molecular motifs, surface chemistries, and topographies. The goal is synthesis of bulk materials, nanomaterials, coatings on textiles, or solid devices for effectively and selectively capturing and releasing phosphorus species or decomposing organophosphate.
  • Theme 2 explores new ways to incorporate phosphorus-capturing materials into scaffolds, supports, or other substrates tailored to the constraints of the environmental or engineered system and deploys novel materials and technologies from Theme 1 into simulated and real-world situations (e.g., soil types). Theme 2 incorporates aspects of socio-economics and policy from Theme 3 (below) to offer specific feedback on the performance of materials and technologies developed by Theme 1.
  • Theme 3 conducts spatial modeling of phosphorus sinks and sources and techno-economic analysis of local and national-scale scenarios. It then links that work with “spatial allocation optimization frameworks” that incorporate stakeholder preferences surrounding technology adoption and environmental sustainability to suggest realistic intervention portfolios across watersheds and socioeconomic conditions.

To help translate the research science to real-world application, the Center leverages what it calls its three “Triple-Bottom-Line Scenario Sites”, geographical testbeds for much of the research that will be conducted. These sites include the Tidewater Research Station in North Carolina, a 1550 acre research extension station that has run a 54-year-long P buildup and drawdown experiment; the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP-LTER) site, which includes sites of urban ecology, wastewater treatment, and municipal organic waste collection; and Lake Okeechobee, Everglades Agricultural Area, and Everglades National Park, including researchers at the Everglades and Indian River Research and Education Centers, which are agricultural sciences research and outreach hubs.

Finally, a major component of the research center is its educational programming, which aims to recruit, train, and graduate a diverse cadre of intersectional researchers who are prepared for the type of convergent research necessary to drive solutions in this space. A core value of STEPS is to broaden the participation of women and underrepresented minorities within this student body, as well as within its faculty and staff and its stakeholder community.

We can all look forward soon to loads of collaborative STEPS-SPA programming, including a joint Phosphorus Forum, an international P sustainability conference, webinars and much more. Buckle up!