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Robert Nerenberg

Robert Nerenberg


Phone: 574-631-4098

Office: 163 Fitzpatrick Hall


Ph.D, Northwestern University, 2003

M.S., Civil Engineering, Wayne State University

B.S., Civil Engineering, University of Buenos Aires, 1990


Dr. Nerenberg obtained his B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1990. He worked as an environmental engineering consultant for eight years, and obtained his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2003. After a brief postdoctoral position at Northwestern University, he joined the department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame in 2004. In 2010, he received the National Science Foundation CAREER award for his research on biofilm processes.  In 2012, he was the recipient of the Paul Busch award from the Water Environment Research Foundation.

Recent Papers

Yue Wang, Charles Bott, Robert Nerenberg (2016).  Sulfur-Based Denitrification: Effect of Biofilm Development on Denitrification Fluxes.  Water Research. 1:184–193

R. Nerenberg (2016).  The Membrane Biofilm Reactor as a Counter-Diffusional Biofilm.  Current Opinions in Biotechnology.  38:131–136

Martin, KJ; Picioreanu, C; Nerenberg, R. (2015). Assessing microbial competition in a hydrogen-based membrane biofilm reactor (MBfR) using multidimensional modeling.  Biotech and Bioeng. 112:9:1843-1853.  DOI: 10.1002/bit.25607

G. Tierra, J. P. Pavissich, R. Nerenberg, Z. Xu, M. S. Alber (2015).  Mechanical role of EPS in biofilm deformation and detachment: a modelling study.  Journal of the Royal Society Interface.   12: 20150045.  DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2015.0045.

F. Sabba, C. Picioreanu, J. Pérez, R. Nerenberg (2015).  Hydroxylamine Diffusion Can Enhance N2O Emissions in Nitrifying Biofilms: A Modeling Study.   Environmental Science & Technology.  DOI: 10.1021/es5046919.

M. Aybar, G. Pizarro, J. Boltz, L. Downing, R. Nerenberg (2014).  Energy-Efficient Wastewater Treatment via the Air-based, Hybrid Membrane Biofilm Reactor (Hybrid-MBfR).  Water Science & Technology. Vol. 69 Issue 8, p1735

J. P. Pavissich, M. Aybar, K. J. Martin* and R. Nerenberg (2014).  Assessing the activity of rough biofilms using image analysis, substrate profiling, and mathematical modeling. Water Science & Technology. Vol 69 No 9 pp 1932–1941.  doi:10.2166/wst.2014.103

K. J. Martin, N. Derlon, E. Morgenroth, D. Bolster, R. Nerenberg (2014). Effect of fouling-layer roughness on hydraulic resistance in membrane filtration.  Journal of Membrane Science. Volume 471, 130–137. DOI: 10.1016/j.memsci.2014.07.045

K. Martin, Picioreanu, C., Nerenberg, R.  (2013).  Modeling Biofilm Development and Fluid Dynamics in a Hydrogen-Based, Membrane Biofilm Reactor (MBfR). Water Research.  47: 4739 -4751.  DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2013.04.031

Robert Nerenberg (2013).  Breathing Perchlorate.  Science. 340 (6128), 38-39.  DOI:10.1126/science.1236336

K. Martin, Nerenberg, R. (2012). The Membrane Biofilm Reactor (MBfR) for Water and Wastewater Treatment: Principles, Applications, and Recent Developments. Bioresource Technology.  DOI: 10.1016/j.biortech.2012.02.110

Summary of Activities/Interests

Novel Nitrogen Removal Processes
Biological nitrogen removal is a major research area within the Nerenberg research group. Nitrogen from wastewater treatment plants and from agriculture runoff is a major contributor to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and also has led to widespread eutrophication (degradation) of waters throughout the world. New regulations are forcing wastewater plants to upgrade to nitrogen removal, often at great expense. Our goal is to create novel, cost-effective processes to reduce or eliminate nitrogen discharges, with additional benefits of reduction in energy and chemical requirements. The group has had three main research thrusts within this area:

1) Novel, membrane-based wastewater treatment processes.With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), via the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technologies (CICEET), the Nerenberg group has developed a novel process for nitrogen removal from wastewater: the Hybrid Membrane-Biofilm Process (HMBP). The HMBP retrofits cassettes of O2-based MBfRs into activated sludge tanks. Nitrogen is biologically removed, while greatly decreasing energy requirements and chemical inputs. Our bench and pilot scale results suggest the HMBP has great potential for energy-efficient and cost-effective treatment. Research in this area is continuing, with funding from NSF and the WateReuse Foundation, on the fundamentals of biofilm development and detachment on gas-supplying membranes, and technology scaleup.

2) Denitrification of agricultural drainage. The Nerenberg group also is addressing nitrogen runoff from agricultural fields. Funded by a seed grant from NOAA (CICEET), and in collaboration with Dr. Tank's group in Biological Sciences, the group developed a novel biofilm process to enhance denitrification in agricultural headwater streams (drainage ditches), amending the streambeds with elemental sulfur (So). The So particles serve as an electron donor for denitrifying biofilms, greatly enhancing denitrification rates. This simple, inexpensive approach can greatly reduce nitrogen discharges from agriculture.

3) Greenhouse gas emissions from biofilm processes for wastewater treatment. Nitrogen removal processes may release significant amounts of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas. Little is known about N2O emission from biofilms. Microsensors for nitrate (NO3-), nitrite (NO2-), and ammonium (NH4+) are critical for this research, but they are not commercially available. We are one of the few labs in the country that fabricate these microsensors. With funding from NSF, we are exploring the kinetics and gene expression of the denitrification pathway as a means to understand potential reduction of exogenous N2O to N2 by denitrifying bacteria.  With funding from WERF, we are looking at N2O and methane emissions from MBBR type biofilm processes for wastewater treatment.

Microbial Fuel Cells for Energy-Efficient Water and Wastewater Treatment
Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) are a novel technology that allows conversion of chemical energy contained in biodegradable compounds into electrical energy. MFCs have the potential to greatly increase the energy efficiency of water and wastewater treatment by harvesting energy while degrading contaminants. The research goal is to develop MFC processes for water and wastewater treatment, including nitrogen removal, especially integrating hollow-fiber membranes (HFMs) into the process. With funding from NSF, the Nerenberg group developed a novel and potentially transformational process where the MFC is layered onto air-supplying HFMs. In collaboration with the Verstraete group at the University of Ghent, Belgium, the group has shown that MFCs with a biological cathode can be used to concurrently remove nitrate and perchlorate. This may allow cost-effective drinking water treatment, and also may allow treatment of high-strength perchlorate wastes from military facilities.

Biofilm Treatment Processes for Drinking Water
More efficient water treatment methods are a critical need, especially in light of the poorer quality of water sources and increasing interest in wastewater re-use. Of particular concern are water micro-pollutants (e.g., endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCS), pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs)) that are not removed by conventional processes. The major research goal is to develop novel MBfR and other biofilm treatment technologies to remove micro-pollutants from water supplies. Our research has focused on biological degradation of perchlorate and bromate, two widespread drinking water micro-pollutants that are an endocrine-disruptor and carcinogen, respectively. Currently, we are collaborating with Dr. Picioreanu at the Delft University of technology (TU Delft) to develop a particle-based biofilm model of a spiral-wound MBfR for drinking water treatment.  This model will provide a more basic understanding of the relationship between substrate concentrations, physical configuration of the spacer, biofilm development and detachment, and contaminant removal fluxes. 

Novel Platforms for Biofilm Research
Biofilm research is typically limited to platforms where either the structure or function can be monitored non-destructively. The goal of this research is to develop new platforms to study the dynamic structure and function of biofilms relevant to MBfRs or to environmental, industrial, and clinical settings. In collaboration with my colleague Dr. Shrout, my lab has developed a new type of biofilm research platform that allows biofilms to be (1) grown under defined shear and substrate conditions, (2) probed with microsensors to determine substrate gradients and fluxes, and (3) viewed in near real-time using a confocal laser scanning microscope (CLSM). Key innovations in the proposed system include the use of a novel fluorescent protein that does not require molecular oxygen to fluoresce. Ours is the first environmental application of this "anaerobic" fluorescent protein, allowing visualization of target bacteria under denitrifying and other anaerobic conditions. The above platform initially can be used to study (1) biofouling on membrane filtration systems, (2) recovery of biofilms after exposure to disinfectants, antibiotics, heavy metals, or toxic nano-particles, and (3) colonization of established biofilms by pathogenic bacteria.


New Computational Model Will Aid in Study of Blood Clots, Biofilms

April 7, 2015

University of Notre Dame applied mathematician Mark Alber and environmental biotechnologist Robert Nerenberg have developed a new computational model that effectively simulates the mechanical behavior of biofilms. Their model may lead to new strategies for studying a range of issues from blood clots to waste treatment systems.

Taking on Storm Water

March 21, 2013

Notre Dame Research Could Improve Sustainability and Cost-effectiveness of Wastewater Treatment

November 15, 2012

University of Notre Dame researcher Robert Nerenberg can tell you many things you might not know about wastewater treatment plants, including their significant carbon footprint, energy demands and chemical costs. His past research has addressed ways to drastically improve the energy efficiency of wastewater treatment. He now is telling the wastewater treatment industry about his promising new line of research that has the capability of significantly decreasing chemical costs and carbon footprint.