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Urine-to-fertilizer research program receives funds for expansion

BRATTLEBORO—The Rich Earth Institute team has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for $225,000 to develop a self-contained system for turning human urine into a concentrated, sanitized, and purified fertilizer.

Paired with commercially available urine-diverting toilet fixtures, this system will produce a valuable and sustainable product from urine, which is otherwise treated as waste.

According to a news release, the system, designed and built by Rich Earth founder and research director Abraham Noe-Hays, has been piloted in an engineering building at the University of Michigan and controlled remotely from Vermont.

The SBIR funding allows Rich Earth’s team to hire additional specialists and build the next version of the system in Brattleboro at the Research Center.

With further refinement, this system could be a more affordable and sustainable alternative to the advanced septic systems that are required in many sensitive watersheds.

Rich Earth underwent a rigorous, merit-based review process to receive this award.

Successful completion of this project will result in eligibility for a further Phase II grant (up to $750,000) to continue development.

In addition to the NSF grant, Rich Earth has now completed the purchase of its research center at 355 Old Ferry Rd., home of the Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD).

Rich Earth has rented space in this building since 2016, transforming it from a warehouse into a research and development facility that tests urine-diverting toilets and processing equipment, analyzes urine-derived fertilizer, and showcases the effect of the fertilizer in a demonstration garden.

Rich Earth can now expand into the whole building, accommodate more staff, and greatly increase fertilizer storage capacity with new access to 24,000 gallons of underground tanks.

Flanked by Brattleboro’s largest solar array, a curbside compost operation, and recycling center, Rich Earth says its regional nutrient recovery facility “will play an important role in the network of people working to make our community sustainable and resilient.”

When it is safe to congregate again, the Rich Earth Institute will invite the community to tour the space and see its operations. In the meantime, learn more about the organization’s work and how to get involved through its new webinar series, advertised on Facebook.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #567 (Wednesday, June 24, 2020). This story appeared on page B7.

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