Environment and Water

logo of leaf in water dropletOur environment and water research addresses the critical need to conserve global resources in the face of a changing climate and a growing population, benefitting sensitive species and habitats as well as human populations and industries. 

These impacts are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars. 

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of environment and water. You can also view a printable version and subscribe to our DISCOVER research newsletter stay abreast of new developments in ACES research.

Stopping invasive fish with carbon dioxide

Asian carp
Ryan Hagerty - USFWS - Flickr

Invasive bighead and silver carp are filter feeders that can drastically alter aquatic environments and reduce populations of native fish, mollusks, and plankton. Having established in the Mississippi River and its tributaries, the fish now loom at the edge of the Great Lakes. Recognizing the threat, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erected electric barriers in the Chicago Area Waterway, but the barriers are expensive and have proven fallible.  Electricity does not reliably affect small fish, potentially including juvenile carp, and fish may also find protection from electricity between barges.

Illinois researchers have shown treating water with repurposed carbon dioxide can effectively repel carp from an area; fish simply avoid places where the gas has been added to water, suggesting carbon dioxide has the potential to act as a non-physical barrier to fish movement. The researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness of the treatment in small laboratory studies and in research ponds, and it is now being tested in a decommissioned lock near Lake Michigan.

If proven effective in the field, more testing will be done to investigate any secondary effects of carbon dioxide, but ultimately, the treatment could be part of the solution for keeping the Great Lakes safe from invasive Asian carp. 

Funding: This work was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources ($300,000), and the US Geological Survey ($669,635).

ACES investigator and department

Cory Suski, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences

Related news stories

Chicago water pollution may be keeping invasive silver carp out of Great Lakes, study says

Friendlier fish may be quicker to take the bait

Research using CO₂ keeps even small fry invasive carp at bay

Cleaning up ag drainage water naturally

Saturated buffer

State and federal nutrient reduction strategies call for mitigation of nitrogen and phosphorus in agricultural drainage water, among other sources. The move is designed to avoid massive fish kills and other negative consequences stemming from oxygen-depleted dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Illinois researchers, saturated buffers may be part of the solution.

Many Midwestern farms are equipped with belowground pipes that carry nutrient-rich water into adjacent ditches and streams. In a saturated buffer, these pipes are re-routed to empty into the rooting zone of edge-of-field stream banks. Perennial plants and soil microbes remove excess nutrients before the water reaches streams beyond. Illinois researchers are evaluating the effectiveness of saturated buffers at local and regional scales.

Recent models from the team project a 5-10% reduction in nitrogen reaching the Gulf of Mexico if eligible farms install saturated buffers. The figure was based on incomplete data, however, and likely underestimates the true impact of the passive, inexpensive practice. The researchers are now conducting field-based research to provide more realistic numbers and evaluate the true impact of saturated buffers. 

Funding: This work was funded through the USDA Farm Service Agency ($12,000). Partial funding was also provided through the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council ($499,000).

ACES investigators and departments

Laura Christianson, Crop Sciences
Reid Christianson, Crop Sciences
Richard Cooke, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Paul Davidson, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Related news stories

New conservation practice could reduce nitrogen pollution in agricultural drainage water flowing to the Gulf of Mexico

Bioreactors ready for the big time

Nothing fishy about new solution for aquaculture wastewater treatment

Recycling nutrients from wastewater

Gulf of Mexico

Food and energy production creates waste that enters streams and rivers, affecting water quality locally in the Midwest and downstream in the Gulf of Mexico. A team of U of I scientists received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a comprehensive four-year project focusing on the interdependency between food, energy, and water systems.

Phosphorus from animal and crop production is a major contributor to water pollution. One source of phosphorus in animal manure is corn gluten feed, a co-product of starch production from corn. The researchers studied the technological and economic feasibility of recovering phosphorus from steepwater in the corn wet milling process and recycling it as fertilizer. This could contribute up to one third of phosphorus fertilizer needs of corn in the U.S., while reducing water pollution. The team is also evaluating the feasibility of phosphorus recovery from corn-based ethanol production (dry grind) plants.

Other components of the project look at the strategic integration of low-input perennial grasses for biomass production; the adjustment of farm management processes to reduce nutrient and sediment loss to surface water; and the willingness of consumers and farmers to pay for water quality improvements.

The project extends beyond specific concerns to create an integrated modeling tool that includes bioprocessing, wastewater treatment, hydrology, and economics and brings together various stakeholder groups to develop innovative solutions for water pollution.

Funding: This project was funded by the National Science Foundation ($2.5 M).

ACES investigators and departments

Vijay Singh, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Ben Gramig, Agricultural and Consumer Economics
Greg McIsaac, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences

Related news stories

Urban metabolism: Collaboration uses big data to look at health of cities through food, water, and energy systems

New system could remove two water pollutants from ag fields

Study offers new tools to improve strategies for reducing nutrient runoff into Mississippi River

Illinois researchers awarded NSF grant to expand computational science education in food, energy, and water

An urban stormwater solution

Chen and Davidson with pavement

As the world population continues to grow, the majority of people are settling in urban areas. Increasing urbanization leads to more areas with impervious surfaces that prevent rainwater drainage. The problems are exacerbated by higher frequencies of heavy precipitation and floods caused by climate change.

Permeable pavement is often recommended as a solution for storm water management and surface water pollution. However, standard pervious concrete is not durable enough for high-volume roads with heavy traffic. Another problem is that debris from cars and environment may eventually clog the pavement pores so the surface needs to be replaced.

Illinois researchers are testing a new type of permeable pavement that offers the durability of impermeable concrete yet allows for storm water runoff and other environmental benefits. 

The pavement, developed and patented in Taiwan, is formed by concrete poured into units of air-circulating aqueduct plastic frames. Once the concrete dries, the frame lid is peeled off, leaving a gridwork of 100 holes per square meter.

In their comparison trials, the researchers found that the patented pavement offered permeability equivalent to pervious concrete as well as the strength and sturdiness of impermeable concrete.

They are also testing the product’s ability to improve water quality by allowing water to infiltrate the soil; reduce snow accumulation on the pavement surface by letting heat move up from the soil; and improve air quality by diluting pollutants from cars through soil filtration. In addition, different surface paving materials may have different heat storage and release capacities, so this study is looking into the surface temperature of the pavement and its interaction with the ambient air.

Funding: A consortium of private companies in Taiwan ($440,000).

ACES investigators and departments

Paul Davidson, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Lu-Ming Chen, Agricultural and Biological Engineering