University of Idaho’s Erik Coats conducts research so distinct, you can smell what he’s up to—literally.
An assistant professor of civil engineering, Coats’ research focuses on microbial wastewater treatment processes. If better understood at the molecular level, he said his research could potentially save the state and region hundreds of millions of dollars.
Recent national attention to the Spokane River’s phosphorus levels, along with changing local waste management requirements, has provided increased visibility of this research. Coats said the proposed Spokane River phosphorus limits are the lowest in the nation, making additional research both timely and vital in long-term planning.
Scientists researching biological wastewater treatment processes seek to create conditions that mimic nature and, while doing so, learn how to better utilize microorganisms to remove phosphorus and other nutrients present in wastewater. This process does not use chemicals or outside elements; rather, it focuses on enhancing naturally occurring processes.
“Really, the microbes are not unlike humans. They need to eat. However, with microbes, if we give them the right constituents—waste products—they’ll actually clean the water for us while they eat,” Coats said. “With a better understanding of how microbes function in these engineered environments, we can better design systems to accomplish treatment goals.”
While much of today’s wastewater research is conducted in laboratory settings, Coats and his team plan to extend their work to actual wastewater treatment plants around the Northwest. He is seeking to work with seven to 10 regional wastewater treatment plants to create a consortium that will allow funding for a graduate research program in biotreatment of wastewater treatment.
The National Science Foundation recently selected Coats’ wastewater proposal out of 130 nationwide and awarded nearly $140,000 toward the startup of this program. The research will focus on investigating biological phosphorus removal utilizing proteomic methods. With the support of the grant and nearly $25,000 in funding from NSF's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, Coats has begun working with Idaho civil engineering students on the first steps to make this research a reality.
Coats hopes his research will yield results that will allow him to work in collaboration with similar research of colleagues Greg Möller and Remy Newcombe. The two University of Idaho researchers created BluePRO technology, a chemical process system that removes phosphorus from wastewater.
Focusing on the biological removal of chemicals from wastewater, Coats has intentions of lowering the amount of outside chemicals used to treat the water. “Once we better understand these processes, we will be able to use cleaner, more natural methods to clean wastewater,” Coats said.