Published: Aug. 19, 2015

yan Heiland attributes his inventive spirit to his family.

"They were all farmers, so I think I have that innate ability to dream up wanting to do something in some way and then just figuring out a way to do it."

The 13-year employee at CU-Boulder, an assistant manager of outdoor services, is responsible for the campus's pristine appearance. And he's curiously proud of its underside.

"A lot of people tend to focus on what they see above ground -- turf, flower beds or trees," says Heiland. "But everything in my world is below ground. As long as you take care of the stuff below ground, the stuff on top is easy."

In his quest to tend to what's beneath -- feeding it organic matter instead of chemical herbicides and fertilizers -- Heiland has invented a mechanical system that could be the envy of farmers, golf course crews and others. With CU-Boulder's help, it's being used on campus, tested in the laboratory and explored for commercialization.

The system involves an already existing product called vermicompost -- a type of compost that's broken down with the help of Red Wiggler worms. While at work, the worms secrete soil-inoculating microbes that may prevent disease and other problems in plant life.

After the worms are removed, the vermicompost is brewed like tea, which jostles the microbes. Heiland has devised how to brew and distribute the tea in the largest quantities ever. It goes from three pump houses on campus to nearly 98 percent of the grounds through existing pipelines and built-in sprinklers. The tea is served up about once a month from May through October.

"The large scale of this had to be figured out because people commonly apply compost tea with boom sprayers, says Heiland. "This method is labor intensive and can be alarming when onlookers don't know what's being sprayed."

He's worked on his system for the past five years, ever since CU-Boulder set forth an aggressive plan to manage campus grounds almost entirely organically. Keeping the microbes alive while blasting them at high speeds across campus, finding the right dosages and preventing clogs in the pipes were the main challenges, notes Heiland.

He worked through them all, but his creativity didn't end there.

He shared his observations on the results he was seeing -- improved turf health -- through a blog. He participated in a national conference to discuss his invention. And he networked with scientists in order to research his compost tea system, partnering with Noah Fierer, a microbial ecologist, and Xavier Rojas, a professional research assistant, at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

"Farmers and gardeners have known about compost tea for a long time, but nobody's ever really put the scientific drill to it and learned what's really going on with it," says Heiland. "That's what we're trying to do here now with CIRES."

CU-Boulder's Office of Industry Collaboration also is involved, working with Heiland and Fierer as they pursue funding for the research. The office trail-blazes to help with outside business entities that have no prior interaction with the university but are interested in determining the scientific merits of such products as well as providing funding for initial studies. The funders are also interested in working with CU-Boulder to explore the commercialization potential of such products and practices.

"You obviously hear about inventions by researchers and students," says Heiland. "But for staff to be able to present ideas and be met with open arms and the energy I've felt from campus for my project -- it's been really impressive.

"Inventions can come from anybody on campus. We have a lot of smart people," he says.

And his invention is proof, making a green campus, teaming with life both above and below ground, a little greener. 

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