Engineer studies waste water in container Engineer studies waste water in container

Grant Transforms Wastewater to Crop Fertilizer

Brattelboro, VT

  • Soil Health

Synthetic fertilizers accelerate crop growth and are commonly used in agriculture; however, these products contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and are costly for farmers. At the same time, wastewater — domestic, industrial or stormwater sewage — is also a source of pollution, and only a fraction of the vast quantity of nutrients flowing through modern wastewater treatment systems is captured for beneficial reuse. A significant portion of regional fertilizer needs could be met by reclaiming the nutrients present in wastewater.

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research is awarding a $330,256 Seeding Solutions grant to the Rich Earth Institute to produce biochar — charcoal created from organic matter — from wastewater material. This biochar can potentially be used to develop safe, renewable fertilizers that enhance agricultural productivity, support soil health, reduce nutrient pollution and mitigate climate change through soil carbon sequestration. Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, the Rich Earth Institute and University of Michigan provided matching funds for a total $660,517 investment.

The research will examine this biochar-based fertilizer’s ability to improve soil health, increase carbon sequestration and restore damaged soil. Ultimately, if successful, wastewater-derived fertilizer can reduce fertilizer runoff and reduce costs for growers. LaKisha Odom, Ph.D.
Scientific Program Director
Soil Health

Fertilizer production contributes to GHG emissions, and runoff from fields can cause pollution. Rising fertilizer prices also put financial pressure on farmers. Furthermore, international conflict is disrupting supply chains, making fertilizer availability and price inconsistent.

Wastewater biosolids, produced during the wastewater treatment process, are rich in organic matter and nutrients that can be used as fertilizer. Yet, these biosolids often contain micropollutants including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals, from industrial processes, personal care products and many other sources. As a result, wastewater biosolids are often sent to landfills, where they produce GHG emissions. However, the amount of micropollutants can be greatly reduced by transforming biosolids into biochar, which can also be used as fertilizer, although the production process causes a loss of nutritional value.

Researchers led by Abraham Noe-Hays, research director at the Rich Earth Institute, are studying a variety of techniques to optimize the wastewater biochar production process to reduce the amount of micropollutants in the biochar while retaining nutrients. Additionally, they are evaluating biochar’s ability to filter contaminants out of other nutrient-rich liquid waste streams by binding nutrients to produce fertilizers even richer in nitrogen and phosphorus.

Finally, the Rich Earth Institute is engaging with farmers, policymakers and other key stakeholders to identify core concerns, needs and recommendations relating to wastewater-derived fertilizer, after which they will co-create strategies to address these perspectives through education, policy and technical development.

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Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

Connect: @FoundationFAR