An interdisciplinary group of students researching the nitrogen cycle is considering composting as a way to relieve the effects of excess nitrogen on campus and globally.
While not receiving attention on the scale of climate change, issues related to the worldwide nitrogen cycle may be equally significant. Nitrogen is an essential component of many compounds necessary for life, including proteins, DNA, and chlorophyll.
But human activity has doubled the amount of nitrogen present naturally in the environment, with fertilizer used to increase plant production accounting for more than half of the nitrogen contributed by humans. Unused nitrogen from fertilizer can leach out of soil and enter streams and rivers, negatively affecting aquatic ecosystems and drinking water.
Leading the student research, which includes an assessment to define the campus’s own nitrogen footprint, are Art Kney, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Ben Cohen, assistant professor of engineering studies; and Mary Wilford-Hunt, director of facilities planning.
Environmental studies major Campbell Weyland ’17 (Pewee Valley, Ky.) and civil engineering majors Madhav Bista ’18 (Kathmandu, Nepal), Aliza Furneaux ’17 (Factoryville, Pa.), Yuxiang Shen ’17 (Chengdu, China), and Wenxin Ye ’17 (Beijing, China) are participating in the project. Mickey Adelman ’10 and Diana Hasegan ’10 are serving as co-advisers.
Beyond assessing Lafayette’s nitrogen footprint, the goal of the project is to better understand the chemistry of nitrogen and phosphorus in the composting process and, in particular, identify techniques by which the nitrogen content of compost might be increased or decreased.
Composting is becoming increasingly important today for its environmental benefits.
The research is expected to address several areas of current interest in environmental science and engineering:
Understanding the human contribution to the nitrogen cycle is a necessary prerequisite for developing measures to mitigate and reduce that footprint. As the nitrogen cycle is one of the areas where the chemistry of Earth and life come together, better management of human impact could help restore balance and promote sustainable development.