WERF Presents Busch Award to Schuler

Honoring his work on improving the removal of trace organic compounds in wastewater, the WERF Endowment for Innovation in Applied Water Quality Research presented Andrew Schuler, Ph.D., with its annual Paul L. Busch Award. This $100,000 award will support Schuler's efforts to harness recent advancements in materials sciences to improve the performance of biofilms. WERF is the Water Environment Research Foundation., based in Alexandria, Va.

The endowment has recognized pioneering researchers for the past eight years, supporting innovative research with practical benefits for wastewater treatment and environmental protection.

This year, Schuler and a multidisciplinary team of researchers are altering the chemical and physical characteristics of surfaces in order to manipulate biofilm composition and structure, with the goal of developing biofilms that will improve the removal of trace organic compounds (TOrC) during wastewater treatment. These compounds encompass a diverse group of chemicals, including many pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and natural and synthetic hormones.

"Biofilm systems are becoming increasingly popular in wastewater treatment, yet we are just beginning to understand how surface characteristics influence biofilm structure and behavior," Schuler explains. "Recent advances in the materials sciences are laying the groundwork for a new research area, with the goal of 'engineering' biofilms for specific functions."

"I'm excited to be partnering with pioneering scientists in microbial attachment to develop and apply this science to improve wastewater treatment performance, including the critical and challenging task of TOrC removal," he says.

One strategy for engineering microbial populations in biofilms that target TOrC is customizing the chemical characteristics of a surface. Using self-assembled monolayers – single layers of molecules with customizable chemical characteristics – Schuler and coworkers will design surfaces to study enrichment of beneficial microorganisms and production of biofilms with desirable adsorption characteristics. New technologies to construct physical and chemical features on attachment media, at the micrometer and nanometer scales, will facilitate Schuler's fundamental research in this area.

"If he is successful, Dr. Schuler will give system designers the key information they need to remove trace organics at rates much greater than is currently possible in conventional systems," says Glenn Reinhardt, WERF executive director. "At a time when the cost of removing trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals is cost prohibitive, this low-cost opportunity is potentially a landmark discovery offering great environmental benefit."

Schuler is an assistant professor in the department of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico. His research has focused on biological processes in wastewater treatment, including process modeling, enhanced biological phosphorus removal, activated sludge sedimentation, and biofilms.

Schuler is a recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award. He is active in undergraduate education, including advisement of student environmental groups and Engineers Without Borders.

WERF presented the award Oct. 21 at its subscriber luncheon, held annually at the Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference.

Past recipients have used the award to assist in their research on breakthrough studies of microbial fuel cells, the interactions of nanomaterials during wastewater treatment, and the cost-effective removal of chemical contaminants from wastewater.

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