Researchers look to Rich Earth Institute for solutions

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WESTMINSTER -- Scientists from University of Michigan and University of Buffalo were in Vermont Monday to continue working with the Rich Earth Institute as its founders try to determine if there is a use for human urine as a fertilizer for vegetables.

The Rich Earth Institute was founded in 2011 in Brattleboro.

Since 2012 the group has been collecting urine from over 170 volunteers in southeastern Vermont to see if the human waste can be safely used as fertilizer while diverting many of the urine's harmful effects on the environment.

Last year the Rich Earth Institute began working with University of Michigan and University of Buffalo to conduct scientific studies on how urine that is used in hay and on vegetable fields affects the vegetables and the soil.

Earlier this season carrots and lettuce were planted in a field in Westminster and the scientists met in Brattleboro Monday morning and then drove out to the fields to talk about how their experiments were advancing.

"It's important to come out here and see the fields. You get much more insight into what is going on," said Nancy Love, a civil and environmental engineering professor at University of Michigan. "We communicate a lot, but it is much more productive to all be here together."

Over the next few weeks the carrots will be harvested, washed and frozen, and then sent to a lab at the University of Buffalo.

A scientist there will look for traces of pharmaceuticals and human pathogens.

Scientists are also analyzing the soil and water table nearby to see how the urine fertilizer might leave its marks on the environment.

The meetings in Brattleboro and Westminster on Monday were the first time all of the participants in the experiment have met since the vegetables were planted earlier this season.

They met under a gray, autumn sky and discussed collection methods, materials to use to gather the water and soil and the best ways to preserve and transport materials from Vermont to Michigan and Buffalo.

Krista Wigginton, an assistant professor civil and environmental engineering professor at University of Michigan said this growing season was a learning process for everyone.

The group did not get all of its experiments finalized until late in the season, and as they look forward to 2015 Wigginton said they were going to learn much more next year.

"This is a two year project," she said. "It's critical to get everything just right. We learned a lot this year and as we refine our methods we can be much more confident about the eventual results."

Rich Earth Institute co-founder Abe Noe-Hays said the experiments in Westminster are important as the group looks toward more funding and wider applications.

Human urine contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which are beneficial to plants, but which have detrimental effects on the environment when they get into water.

Noe-Hays said the group is trying to prove that urine can be diverted away from the waste stream, and used as a productive fertilizer.

"In our current waste water system we flush the excess pharmaceuticals into our rivers and spend money to treat the urine," he said. "So we are trying to figure out what we can do ahead of that to build a system that creates fertilizer for farming."

The experiments and research The Rich Earth Institute is doing are some of the first in the United States, though co-founder Kim Nace said the group is being contacted by other civil, scientific and farming organizations around the world.

"A lot of people want to know what we're doing and we're working to come up with the answers," she said. "The group came to Vermont to see what we were doing and to get a context for the experiments."

Love, the scientist from the University of Michigan, agrees.

She said across the globe water and energy issues and food scarcity are getting more important.

Municipalities built giant, expensive and inefficient waste water treatment plants in the 1970s and many of them are reaching the end of their useful lives.

Love said she expects what Rich Earth Institute learns will lay a foundation for research and applications well into the future.

"These issues are not going away anytime soon," she said. "There is growing interest in what we are doing here, and as we come up with new questions hopeful we can keep moving forward toward building a more sustainable way of dealing with our resources."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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