One’s nuisance is another one’s treasure, and that is especially true in the case of ammonia. In waste water, ammonia is a harmful pollutant. If it leaks into groundwater, or it is carelessly discharged into water basins, it causes algal blooms, which often destroy entire aquatic ecosystems.
However, this same ammonia in agriculture is an invaluable asset. Used as a fertilizer, it transforms the state of the soil and boosts crop production enormously. Every year, in order to meet the huge demand for this chemical, 1% of the world’s electricity usage goes to ammonia production from nitrogen.
In the line of our fast changing climate and incredible population rise, the demand for food is only likely to increase. This will ultimately lead to even higher need of chemical stimulant for our precious soil resource to deliver. At this same time, however, many of the agricultural areas that rely heavily on manure, cause watershed pollution due to ammonia leaks.
A bright team of engineers from Virginia Tech decided to look for green ways to handle both problems. Their idea was to somehow extract ammonia from waste water before it can be disposed off in the environment. Then, they would like to use it in fertilizer, so that energy should not be wasted on production.
So, after two years of hard work, Mohan Qin, a second-year doctoral student, managed to build a unique system that can do exactly what the team wanted. The system is somewhat hybrid, as it combines two very well known technologies- microbial electrochemical cell and forward osmosis.
Inside the microbial electrochemical cell, bacteria carry out chemical reactions to extract ammonia by generating electricity, acting as a bacterial battery. Then, the process of forward osmosis helps filtering clean the water, leaving behind pollutants and contaminants. The result is ammonia, clean water and electricity.
Now that the engineering part is up and running, Qin has another quest in front of him. He would like to develop computer models, which can statistically explain why and how this system works so well. While doing this, he is hoping to initiate a pilot, large scale system, and collaborate with local water treatment plants that might be interested in hosting a research facility.
Considering the numerous benefits from such highly efficient system, the only thing we can do is congratulate the team and wish them lots of luck. Such technology has huge potential, if not to meet all demands for ammonia, it can at least cut down the need of wasteful production processes.
Image (c) Getty