Illinois team advances research to turn trash into treasure

9/22/2021 8:29:50 AM

From left, Lav Varshney (ECE), Nishant Garg and Jeffery Roesler.
From left, Lav Varshney (ECE), Nishant Garg and Jeffery Roesler.

An Illinois research team is taking its plan to turn trash into treasure a big step further with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). Led by Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) assistant professor Nishant Garg (PI), the team will characterize and investigate uses for the ash left over after municipal waste is incinerated – specifically its use in construction materials. The project is titled RADAR-X (Rapid AI-Based Dissection of Ashes using Raman and XRF Spectroscopy, 2021-2023).

The two-year project also includes as co-PIs CEE professor Jeffery Roesler, B.K. Sharma of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, currently senior research scientist at USDA Agricultural Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa., and associate professor Lav Varshney from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The project resulted from a successful pilot project conducted in summer 2020 to establish viability with seed funding provided by the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment (iSEE) at UIUC.

Burning solid waste produces energy, but the ash left over can be problematic, Garg said. It costs money to send the ash to a landfill, and there are environmental concerns as well. 

“What we are proposing is that you can turn a waste that owners pay to dispose into a by-product  resource that you can make new construction products from and sell,” Garg said.

For example, the ash could be used as a substitute for cement or as an additive in the pavement.

The composition of trash varies by location and by the time of year, so the team will collect samples of ash from waste-to-energy plant owners across the U.S. They will analyze the ash samples to determine their chemical composition and mineralogy, use Artificial Intelligence to further classify, and then identify specific end-uses for their beneficial application. They plan to create a system to characterize ash samples using less expensive equipment, so ultimately, plant owners can do it themselves.

Garg joined the faculty in 2018. His research focuses on the characterization and chemistry of sustainable, durable, and environment-friendly construction materials.


The team acknowledges support from Brian Pianfetti, Director of Strategic Research Initiatives in CEE, who assisted in proposal preparation, and graduate students Vikram Kumar, Aniruddha Baral, and Krishna C. Polavaram, who assisted in collecting preliminary data for this proposal.