Bradie S. Crandall, New DENIN Fellow, Aims to Turn Nitrate Pollution into Fertilizer

Bradie Crandall is among five UD doctoral students recently named DENIN Environmental Fellows for 2022–2024. These highly competitive and prestigious fellowships offer financial support and professional development opportunities to students at UD whose Ph.D. research interests help bring science to society.

“What if we could fight climate change and other environmental challenges by viewing pollution as a resource rather than a poison?,” asks Crandall. “My research focuses on taking pollutants like the carbon dioxide that’s causing climate change, and the nitrates that are polluting our drinking water in Delaware, and turning these pollutants into valuable chemicals. In the face of these enormous environmental challenges, my work helps provide us with a reason that we can be hopeful about the future.”

Farmers fertilize their crops, which can produce nitrate pollution in water. Crandall aims to build an electrolyzer to convert nitrates into sustainably produced ammonia, which can be turned into fertilizer. This innovation would create a circular economy for nitrogen and greatly reduce nitrate pollution.

Like batteries, electrolyzers rely on the relationship between electricity and chemistry, said Crandall. Unlike traditional reactors that run on heat, electrolyzers use electricity from clean, renewable power sources such as solar to drive chemical reactions.

Crandall aspires to a career in technical policy advisement in climate or energy to Congress or the President. “Most of the technologies that are going to help us combat climate change,” he said, “rely on electrochemistry,” such as battery electric vehicles, solar panels, and battery energy storage. His doctoral work is helping him build a strong foundation in the field. He wants to help bridge the gap between science and policy. “We’re going to need scientists and engineers to bring their expertise to policymaking.”

Since childhood, Crandall has been in touch with the environment. He grew up in rural Warren, Pennsylvania. “I didn’t really need toys because I had the Allegheny National Forest as my playground—literally in my backyard.”

He began undergraduate studies at John Carroll University, a small school in Ohio. While playing on their football team, his spine was fractured and he had to withdraw from school. When his health improved, he transferred to the University of South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, motivated by his love for nature and the desire to sustain it.

He took eight months off from school during his bachelor’s degree to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on technologies to desulfurize fuel. “That was my first chance to take a deep dive into research, and I learned that I enjoyed it,” Crandall said.

He came to realize that chemical engineers are prepared to address many of society’s problems. He feels that they helped to create our current pollution problems, and they have some responsibility to help solve them now by redesigning chemical processes.

His doctoral research with his advisor, Feng Jiao, Robert Grasselli Development Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is helping to “rebuild the entire chemical industry from the ground up,” Crandall said. The modern chemical engineer’s dream is that instead of running on fossil fuels, as it currently does, the chemical industry would run on energy from the sun and pull chemical building blocks from the air and water. Researchers globally are working on this transformation one chemical at a time.

Crandall’s background and interests are an unusual mix of chemistry, economics, and policy. Before graduate school, he served as a technical policy intern with the Washington Internships for Students in Engineering (WISE) program of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, studying climate policy with several federal agencies. Through that program, he visited the White House and gave a speech in a congressional building.

In grad school he has analyzed the economics of scaling up the carbon dioxide electrolyzer technology he’s been exploring to determine if it’s economically viable. This kind of analysis provides critical information to startup companies and investors about which technologies are most promising.

Crandall feels that the DENIN Fellowship provides a great opportunity to mesh his interests in chemical technology, economics, and policy. He envisions Earth sitting on a three-legged stool of technology, economics, and policy, and we need strength in all three legs to preserve a habitable planet.

After his spine was fractured during freshman year, doctors prescribed weightlifting to build muscle around his spine. This led Crandall to powerlifting. In 2022, he broke his own Delaware state squat record by lifting 606 pounds. He competes nationally in strongman and powerlifting competitions and holds powerlifting records in four states. During the COVID lockdown, he wrote a book—The Living Machine: Engineering Strength with a Plant-Based Diet—about how he has accomplished all of this on a vegan diet.

Crandall is a mentor in the WISE program and chair of the Sustainability Committee of UD Graduate Student Government. He is also a member of the Sustainability Council Climate Action Plan Subcommittee, which is urging the university to develop a climate action plan.

Credit: EcoWrite, LLC