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Research Project:
Evaluation of Bio-Inspired Water Treatment Plant Sludge Materials Through Mycelium

University: Tennessee State University

Principal Investigator(s): PI: Dr. Catherine Armwood-Gordon, Co-PI: Dr. Shihui Liu, Co-PI: Mr. Kang Du, Co-PI: Dr. Ranganathan Parthasarathy,

Project Description:

Researchers are focusing on developing innovative, sustainable materials characterized by low energy consumption and versatility. Mycelium-based materials, an emerging topic in sustainable construction, offer promise due to mycelium's renewable properties and its ability to break down organic matter, potentially serving as a building block for eco-friendly construction materials. The objective of this research is to use water treatment plant (WTP) sludge as a substrate for mycelium to develop a bio-inspired sustainable construction material for transportation infrastructure. Mycelium is a root-like structure of a fungus consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae (Figure 1). Mycelium fibrous network structure can bind material together by growing into its substrate and provide tensile strength. A WTP produces large quantities of sludge as a result of treatment processes of raw water such as flocculation, filtration, and coagulation. Instead of shipping this non-hazardous waste sludge to commercial landfills, it can be used as a substrate for mycelium to grow sustainable, renewable construction materials.

Various substrate mix designs using WTP and mycelium will be prepared to test and optimize mechanical properties of the designs, including compressive and tensile strength, and others. Microstructure of the mix designs and development of mechanical properties will also be evaluated over time. Leachate tests will be performed to assess the environmental impacts, if any, of the developed materials. Water erosion and landslide resistance of the developed materials will also be evaluated to determine their suitability for use as a construction material in the transportation infrastructure.

Figure 1: Mycelium root-like structure

To achieve its goals, the research project will employ graduate and undergraduate students in experiments and plans to disseminate findings through journal papers and reports. This collaborative approach and knowledge sharing are essential components of the research's technology transfer plan, contributing to the broader understanding and adoption of eco-friendly construction materials.

US DOT Priorities:

Researching bio-inspired water treatment plant sludge materials through mycelium aligns with the U.S. Department of Transportation's strategic goals by offering the potential to enhance sustainability in transportation by developing eco- friendly construction materials. This will support economic growth and competitiveness by providing cost-effective solutions, preserve the environment, address equity concerns by reducing transportation-related pollution effect disparities, and contribute to climate and sustainability objectives through pollution reduction. Furthermore, this research promotes innovation in construction materials, aligning with the goal of modernizing the transportation system for the future.

Outputs:

This research project aims to develop eco-friendly construction materials that address environmental concerns associated with traditional manufacturing processes, emphasizing sustainability, energy efficiency, and versatility. The project will generate essential scientific data by focusing on substrate mix designs, natural fiber reinforcement optimization, and mechanical property testing and improve our knowledge of water treatment plant sludge and mycelium-based materials.

The research may introduce innovative fabrication methods for these materials, potentially reducing disposal costs for water treatment plant sludge and enhancing construction material strength. It also holds the potential to contribute to academic publications and reports while disseminating findings in the scientific community. Additionally, by involving graduate and undergraduate students in experiments, the project promotes knowledge transfer and skill development, fostering partnerships beyond the UTC consortium to advance the adoption of these sustainable materials in construction and environmental practices.

Outcomes/Impacts:

The research on bio-inspired water treatment plant sludge materials through mycelium has the potential to create transformative solutions to address the growing problem of waste and pollution resulting from traditional methods used for construction of the transportation infrastructure. These materials, characterized by their low energy consumption, sustainability, and functionality, have the potential to revolutionize construction practices which will allow transformation to a more environmentally friendly and economically viable future transportation infrastructure.

Moreover, the application of WTP sludge as a waste substrate for mycelium-based construction materials has the promise of reducing the environmental footprint of water treatment plant residues. This technological innovation could minimize the need for costly disposal methods and provide the necessary flexural strength of construction materials, while aligning with the principles of sustainability and resource efficiency. Additionally, the research's knowledge transfer component, is expected to foster a new generation of experts in this field and promote the adoption of bio- inspired materials in construction practices. Ultimately, the outcomes of this research have the potential to positively impact the transportation industry, contributing to enhanced sustainability, durability, and cost-effectiveness while mitigating the environmental impact of industrial solid waste from WTPs.

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