A new approach to sustainable fertilizer takes top prize at Ideas to Serve competition

Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Ideas to Serve solutions winner Culturea's Abigail Cohen with judge Kathleen Kurre.
Ideas to Serve solutions winner Culturea's Abigail Cohen with judge Kathleen Kurre.


By Amelia Neumeister

Two environmental engineering Ph.D. students won first place at the 2019 Ideas to Serve competition earlier this month for finding a way to help small farmers grow “off the grid.”

Abigail Cohen and Amanda Lai proposed a new sanitation system that would allow growers to harvest nutrients from waste and create sustainable fertilizer — reducing their reliance on energy-intensive and expensive traditional fertilizers. Their idea also won the best poster award.

“It’s a social enterprise,” Cohen said. “I started to bring some of my research in agriculture technology to those who could benefit from it.”

Cohen’s research focuses on nutrient recovery and sustainability. Lai works to understand the biological risk factors in byproduct fertilizers.

Their winning project relates closely to Cohen’s work with School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Yongsheng Chen on a U.S. Department of Agriculture funded project to design and operate a hydroponic growing system using nutrients collected from domestic wastewater. Their pilot project will tap Georgia Tech’s wastewater system.

“It is a perfect fit that enables me to keep working towards my goal of creating and deploying nutrient recovery solutions and close the nutrient loop,” Cohen said.

Ideas to Serve is an annual competition hosted by the Scheller College of Business Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship designed to encourage students to solve social and environmental issues. Judges award two first place prizes: one for a “solutions” track and one for a “problems” track.

Cohen has been working toward sustainable nutrient recovery for nearly a decade, after she spent time in Kenya with farmers interested in using urine as fertilizer to reduce their dependence on synthetic fertilizers. She won the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Challenge for her work there.

“Winning the [Ideas to Serve competition] was a wonderful vindication for me,” Cohen said. “I’ve been working toward sustainable nutrient recovery since I was with my first agtech project.”