R. D. Cusick
R. D. Cusick
Assistant Professor
(217) 244-6727
3217 Newmark Civil Engineering Bldg

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Education

  • Ph.D. Environmental Engineering, Pennsylvania State University, 2013
  • M.S. Environmental Engineering, Pennsylvania State University, 2010
  • B.S. Environmental Engineering, University of California, Riverside, 2005

Biography

Roland Cusick earned his B.S. in Environmental Engineering from the University of California, Riverside (2005), and holds an M.S. (2010) and Ph.D. (2013) in Environmental Engineering, both from the Pennsylvania State University. Their honors include receiving the W. Wesley Eckenfelder Graduate Research Award from the American Association of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (2013), the Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award (2013), and the Dow Sustainability Student Challenge Award (2012).

Dr. Cusick teaches CEE 443 Environmental Engineering Principles, Chemical and CEE 437, Water Quality Engineering, and CEE 449, Environmental Engineering Lab

Academic Positions

  • Assistant Professor, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013-present

Major Consulting Activities

  • Island Water Technology, Prince Edward Island, Canada, 2014 - present: Consult on R&D of a bioactivity sensor for autonomous wastewater treatment systems
  • Aquapod, Calgary, Ontario, Canada, 2013 - present: Serve on scientific advisory board for advanced treatment septic system development
  • Cambrian Innovation, Cambridge, MA, 2011: State of the art survey of high rate anaerobic digestion systems.
  • Envinity, State College, PA, 2010: Energy and economic assessment of MSW co-digestion and CHP at Williamsport wastewater treatment plant.

Professional Registrations

  • Engineer in Training, California, 2005

Research Statement

Research Statement – Roland D. Cusick

Motivation and Vision

Currently, water and wastewater treatment infrastructure systems operate only as resource sinks but could provide society with three of the most critical resources of the 21st century: energy, nutrients, and water. Each day roughly 125 billion liters of wastewater are treated in the United States. Contained within this out-flow are roughly 240 mega-watt hours of energy in the form of organic matter, 5 million metric tons (MMt) of nitrogen, and 1 MMt of phosphorus. The existing power demand of water and wastewater treatment infrastructure currently represents 3% of national demand and is expected to increase with desalination capacity due to climate changes related water scarcity. If operated with greater flexibility, and fully electrified, the power demand of water infrastructure could be leveraged to absorb excess renewable energy and facilitate grid stabilization with increased renewable penetration.

The primary vision of my research is to increase the resilience of energy and food systems by developing technologies to integrate renewable energy resources with and recover nutrients from water infrastructure. Research in my group focuses on process development and modelling in two major themes: 1) electrochemical water treatment with energy storage materials and 2) nutrient recovery from wastewater and grain processing infrastructure. Within these themes, my research group uniquely integrates experimentation and modeling of water and wastewater treatment technologies across multiple scales to establish mechanistic links between micro-scale physical and chemical processes at solid-liquid interfaces and system performance. We have also developed system-scale models to extend these linkages to national scale resource inventories and long-term economic outcomes.

Research Goals, Accomplishments, and Plans

Thrust 1: Electrochemical water treatment. Decarbonizing the power grid is one of the greatest challenges facing society in the 21st century. A central goal of my work is to develop robust electrochemical technologies that enable the integration of renewable energy within distributed and centralized water treatment infrastructure. While my work in environmental electrochemistry began as a graduate student developing novel biotechnologies for resource recovery from wastewater, I have focused my research as a principal investigator on the integration of experimentation, process modeling, and systems analysis to advance the development of electrochemical ion separation with energy storage materials. My goals in this thrust are (1) to understand how energy storage material properties impact ion adsorption rate and thereby performance for pollutant removal and (2) to elucidate the impact of design and operating decisions on energy dynamics and costs of electrochemical treatment systems across deployment contexts and under realistic treatment constraints.

Accomplishments: With funding from two unsolicited NSF grants, I have been able to establish myself at the forefront of electrode design for advanced ion-adsorption and process modeling of electrochemical separation systems. First, I co-led the development of a calibrated and validated 2-D equivalent circuit model for capacitor electrode deionization systems and we were the first to simulate the critical limitations of carbon electrode surface chemistry and parasitic water splitting reactions on energy dissipation and salt adsorption (J. Art. 21). My PhD student (S. Hand) and I then used the ECM model to conduct a global sensitivity analysis of capacitive deionization (CDI) to define the limits of salt adsorption and energy efficiency for prominent architectures, revealing the critical importance of electronic conductivity and ion-selective diffusion interfaces in promoting energy efficient deionization of brackish groundwater (J. Art. 26). Leveraging the insights we gained from our global sensitivity analysis, my student and I then developed a technoeconomic analysis (TEA) built on our rigorous, parameterized process model to quantify the lifecycle water production costs of brackish groundwater desalination and selective removal of nitrate and perchlorate (J. Arts. 29, 31). These studies demonstrated, for the first time, that CDI brackish desalination costs could match those of established pressure drive membrane separations technologies if electrode lifetimes can surpass two years. Further, we showed the inclusion of ion-exchange membranes will likely be cost prohibitive, indicating that selective removal of oxyanions in the millimolar range (e.g., nitrate and phosphate) presents a more realistic pathway toward full-scale implementation to help guide funding agency priorities and research directions with this growing international community.

To address the electrode material limitations elucidated in our modeling studies, my group developed novel approaches to enhancing ion adsorption without the inclusion of cost prohibitive ion-exchange membranes. We demonstrated, for the first time, that coating capacitive substrates with manganese oxide layers through permanganate oxidation of activated carbon dramatically improves critical performance metrics. By modifying the operating electrode potential away from water reduction and promoting rapid kinetics of cation-insertion charge transfer reactions, electrode storage capacity and specific energy consumption were significantly improved (J. Art. 20). My group also showed how changing the morphology and composition of activated carbon composite electrodes could achieve the CDI performance targets identified in our brackish groundwater desalination TEA. To achieve targets for ion-selectivity and improve ionic flux, we developed electrodes with bitortuous morphologies coated with polyelectrolytes (J. Art. 25). We also characterized and developed a mechanistic model for activated carbon composite electrodes with charged polysaccharide binders (J. Art. 23). Based on the advances made in our early work, we have moved beyond CDI for brackish groundwater deionization, and toward the development of electrodes and process models for selective removal of nutrients and trace contaminants from drinking water and wastewater. With funding from the NSF, we have collaborated on the development of redox active polymer electrode coatings (J. Art. 36) for selective separation of oxyanion contaminants (e.g., arsenate, phosphate, nitrate, and PFAS). Recent work from my group has shown that ferrocene polymer coated electrodes not only selectively bind anionic pollutants such as arsenate and phosphate, but also exhibit electrode lifetimes that are orders of magnitude greater than electric double layer capacitors due to the inclusion of highly reversible metallocene redox groups and prevention of carbon corrosion (Pending Art. 1).

In addition to electrochemical separations, my research group has developed thrusts related to biosensing and electrochemical disinfection. With funding from the Water Research Foundation, we have established productive collaborations technology providers and public utilities to develop best practices for carbon monitoring at wastewater treatment plants using bio-electrochemical sensors (BESs). These sensors leverage electroactive biofilms to generate an amperometric response to changes in wastewater composition and are designed to track soluble carbon concentrations through changes in bioelectric current. Through advanced statistical analysis of field data, we have shown that while BES signals exhibit nonlinear dynamics in response to changes in wastewater composition, there is sufficient structure to extract cyclical information related to carbon loading that could be leveraged for data driven modeling of biological treatment systems (J. Art. 43). My expertise in electrochemistry in complex waste streams has also created opportunities to guide the development of novel non-sewered sanitation systems. Through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, my group developed a process model for electro-chlorination as a core component of a larger TEA-LCA framework that we are using to inform the prioritization of research, development, and deployment of sanitation technologies across the foundation’s portfolio (J. Art.38).

Plans: My long-term objective for this thrust is to develop robust electrochemical technologies and modeling frameworks that enable full-scale deployment and integration with renewable energy. In electrochemical separations, we will continue to lead this growing field toward sustainable development pathways through novel electrode design and process modeling. With funding from the DOE, we are currently developing a process model-based TEA framework to estimate life cycle treatment costs of nitrate and phosphate removal and recovery with faradaic polymer coated electrodes, to identify and navigate tradeoffs between material costs and ion-selectivity through electrode design. I also plan to move the design of faradaic ion-selective electro-adsorption systems beyond plate-and-frame paradigms to enhance storage capacity and regeneration rates with fixed and moving bed designs. In bio-electrochemical sensing, we will leverage machine learning to develop non-linear models for carbon dynamics that will enable optimization of energy consumption in aerobic wastewater treatment systems, energy recovery from anaerobic digesters, and upset detection of biological nutrient removal and water recovery systems. Finally, I aim to leverage our computational frameworks to model the chemical and virtual energy storage benefits of water treatment technologies under the transient conditions typical of renewable energy sources. This major research trust will include virtual battery modeling of both pressure driven and electrochemical technologies in both centralized (ancillary services to the grid) and decentralized (direct integration with renewables) contexts and reshape how we think about energy demand and consumption in the water sector.

Thrust 2: Nutrient recovery from wastewater. My research group has also focused on developing technologies that leverage chemical precipitation to generate renewable fertilizers from nutrient rich wastewater and grain biorefinery process streams. We investigate how solution composition and operating conditions influence precipitation kinetics and crystal formation pathways for sparingly soluble nitrogen and phosphorus solids. My goals in this thrust are (1) to connect molecular scale surface interactions and crystallization pathways to systems scale process impacts through plant-wide particle population balance modeling, (2) to leverage process models to elucidate national scale opportunities for phosphorus recovery from centralized wastewater treatment and biorefinery infrastructure, and (3) to understand the benefits and trade-offs of P recovery on non-point source pollution from crop production and animal feeding operations.

Accomplishments: With funding from the NSF INFEWS program, we have gained fundamental insights into the mechanisms governing precipitation and dissolution of phosphate minerals in diverse waste streams (wastewater, manure, and bio-ethanol byproducts) to enable modeling of P removal and fertilizer production (specifically, struvite and calcium phytate) and quantification of plant-wide impacts of washout from precipitation reactors. My work was the first to elucidate the impact of operating conditions and struvite seed crystal loading on the kinetics of phosphate removal and struvite crystal formation (J. Art. 22). This work established the importance of surface area dependent precipitation models in predicting fertilizer yield and particle washout from crystallization reactors. To simulate plantwide impacts of struvite recovery and loss, my PhD student (S. Aguiar) characterized the size dependent dissolution kinetics of struvite and built a particle population balance modeling tool for a plant-wide simulator (J. Art. 44). In this study, we were the first to illustrate how struvite precipitation reactors treating liquids from solids-handling unit operations can beneficially capture most of the waste phosphate coming into a treatment plant as renewable fertilizers. Our modeling also showed how disruptive struvite loss can be for biological phosphorus removal processes.

My group also focuses on elucidating P recovery opportunities at the national scale. First, we constructed a national phosphorus mass balance that illuminated the role of centralized wastewater and biorefinery infrastructure as critical conduits for both point and non-point source pollution (J. Art. 28). Then my PhD student (K. Ruffatto) linked publicly available data with our plantwide wastewater and corn ethanol models to develop a spatial inventory of P recovery potential from centralized wastewater treatment and corn biorefinery infrastructure across the US (J. Art. 45, in press). This work is the first of its kind to show that more than twice as much P could be recovered from corn ethanol plants than all wastewater treatment plants in the US. We also elucidated the immense potential for circular P flows between centralized infrastructure and crop production in the midwestern states that make up the Corn Belt. This research opens immense possibilities to leverage grain processing infrastructure systems renewable phosphorus mines to enhance the resilience of domestic phosphorus reserves.

Plans: My long-term objective for this thrust is to enable circular phosphorus flows through the development of robust chemical precipitation systems for a diverse range of organic rich industrial and waste streams. We have on-going work (i) to understand mechanisms of phosphate nucleation and biomineralization in organic scaffolds that will enhance precipitation kinetics and crystal retention within reactors, (ii) to develop phosphate precipitation particle population models for fluidized bed reactors that integrate with commercial treatment plant simulators to define best practices for crystallizer operation and enhance plant-wide synergies of P recovery, and (iii) to elucidate opportunities for nutrient credit trading between wastewater treatment plants, corn biorefineries, and animal feeding operations collocated within Corn Belt watersheds through network analyses of P flows and recovery pathways within the US. I also aim to quantify the embodied nutrient flows and environmental footprint of established (corn starch and ethanol) and emerging (non-animal proteins) grain biorefinery products. My students and I will continue to work with industrial partners to further improve our process models and ensure user uptake of our modeling tools for full-scale phosphorus recovery systems at wastewater processing plants, corn ethanol facilities, animal feeding operations, and emerging protein isolation plants for meat replacement products. I will also leverage our work in this arena to inform the agricultural reuse and advance the frontier of non-sewered sanitation technologies through existing collaborations (J. Arts.19, 27, 33-35, 37, 41).

Future Directions and Integration with Teaching and Service

Moving forward, I will continue to conduct research that integrates experimentation and modeling to establish connections between the first principles of environmental chemistry and technological challenges of full-scale implementation to advance the sustainability of water and wastewater treatment. Beyond the direct research outcomes, I will leverage this work to develop modeling tools for engineering professionals and integrate research findings in the courses I teach to expose the next generation of environmental to sustainable chemical treatment processes.

Research Interests

  • Process modeling
  • Biological wastewater treatment
  • Microbial electrochemical technologies
  • Resource recovery from wastewater
  • Capacitive deionization
  • Electrochemical pollutant removal
  • Chemical Phosphorus Recovery

Selected Articles in Journals

Magazine Articles

Professional Societies

  • Member, American Chemical Society
  • Member, Electrochemical Society
  • Member, Water Environment Federation
  • Member of the International Working Group for Capacitive Deionization & Electrosorption, Fall 2017 - present.
  • Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors: AEESP is the primary professional society for environmental engineering and I am currently serving on the Demographics Committee Member (2020-present) and MS Thesis Award Committee (2021-present).

Service on Department Committees

  • Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability Program Chair (2021 - 2023)
  • Environmental Engineering and Science Admissions and Fellowship Committee (2014 - 2017)
  • Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability Admission and Fellowship Committee (2015 - 2018)
  • Environmental Engineering and Science Governance Committee (2015, 2017, 2021 EES Coordinator election cycles)

Recent Courses Taught

  • CEE 437 - Water Quality Engineering
  • CEE 443 - Env Eng Principles, Chemical
  • CEE 595 AG (CEE 595 G) - Environmental Engr Seminar