Home > News > CEEES Graduate Student Andrew Schranck Recipient of Prestigious Energy-Related Fellowship

CEEES Graduate Student Andrew Schranck Recipient of Prestigious Energy-Related Fellowship

Allison Preston • DATE: January 23, 2018

Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences (CEEES) Graduate Student Andrew Schranck has been named a 2018 recipient of the prestigious Patrick and Jana Eilers Graduate Student Fellowship for Energy-Related Research. Students are selected based on their academic performance, research capabilities, and understanding of current energy challenges.

Schranck, a fourth-year graduate student, is investigating electrochemical urine treatment technologies for improved wastewater treatment efficiency. His research project titled, “Urea Electrolysis Cells for Producing Hydrogen Fuel,” aims to use compounds in urine as a means for producing hydrogen fuel.

“I am honored to be representing ND Energy,” says Schranck. “Anytime you receive an award it is validation of your hard work.”

Schranck says experiences from his undergraduate career inspired him to study environmental engineering with a focus on drinking water and wastewater. While attending Missouri University of Science and Technology, he participated in the school’s Engineers Without Borders chapter and had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia several times. While there, the team focused on projects related to water infrastructure and erosion control systems.

“In this village, they had to get their water from bottles of water and they lived 30 minutes from the nearest town,” Schranck says. “At one point they were getting a truck to bring water once per month but that was still not a continuous source.”

The experience encouraged him to apply to the University of Notre Dame for graduate school and focus on research related to clean and accessible drinking water. However, his background in civil and architectural engineering did not provide him with lab research experience. He credits his advisor, Professor Kyle Doudrick, for helping ease that transition.

“He has been very supportive in terms of helping me develop as a researcher,” says Schranck.

Despite the initial learning curve, Doudrick says Schranck’s passion for water and energy use in developing areas has made him a leader in and out of the lab.

“Andrew is a committed student with a strong research integrity,” says Doudrick. “We are pleased he is part of our department and university.”

Schranck’s current research focuses on oxidizing urea, an organic compound in urine, to treat wastewater. Urea is a nitrogen-containing compound, and an emerging concern for treatment plants is the amount of nitrogen present in wastewater. Although urine only accounts for about one percent of the volume of wastewater in a treatment facility, it causes the treatment process to take much longer and use more energy because it can account for up to 80 percent of the nitrogen content. Additionally, excess nitrogen in aquatic ecosystems can cause eutrophication, or excess nutrient concentration, leading to overgrowth of aquatic plants and oxygen deprivation for animals. 

“Removing urine from the traditional wastewater treatment process will improve the water chemistry in the treatment reactors and increase energy efficiency, reduce treatment facility footprint, and provide a cost benefit to the customer,” says Schranck.

This will be dependent on the ability to process urine in innovative ways. Schranck aims to address this issue through his research by improving electrochemical methods for treating urea to produce a storable form of energy such as hydrogen. An outcome of this research could be using decentralized systems to treat urine at the source, subsequently providing any energy benefits back to the producer.

Currently, he is pursuing the use of earth-abundant, nickel-based electrodes to investigate the role of various urine components like phosphates, sodium chloride, and ammonium chloride on electrochemical urea transformation. Urine is a complex matrix of compounds that needs greater understanding for this technology to reach commercial application. He believes a more comprehensive study of “real world” scenarios for urea electrolysis need to be explored before this outcome can be realized.

“Electrochemists and materials scientists have done a great deal to bring electrochemical urea oxidation to its current state but environmental engineers need to push the envelope and answer questions about how a real system would operate and what barriers need to be addressed to make this technology environmentally and economically viable,” Schranck says.

He describes the project as high-risk, high-reward.

“This is still a rather new area of research and there is a lot that is not known,” says Schranck. “But there is great potential for it if we are successful.”

Long-term, Schranck says he hopes to use his research experience as a platform for a career in international development with a focus on water sanitation and hygiene in developing countries. He says he is particularly interested in exploring the food-energy-water nexus, or how our food, water, and energy are intertwined and reliant on each other. He is also interested in launching an entrepreneurial project that would allow him to tackle issues related to water sanitation with the help of engineers, global health and development workers, and representatives in the tech field.