Company removing nitrates from water using algae

The algae found in a lab at the University of Nebraska's Beadle Center may hold the key to clean water. Research on algae first started several years ago with a goal of producing oil.

"The initial impetus was a DOE project involving many labs here in the department of biochemistry," Senior Research Associate James Allen said. "The idea of it was to utilize things like algae to produce bio-oils or second generation bio-fuels."

But along the way, researchers discovered algae has the ability to remove nitrates from water. And nitrates are a problem in many wells across the state.

"What we can do is we can deploy algae in a bioreactor-based system, so that it's hooked up with well water, it can pull the nitrates out of the well water and generate clean water," Chair of the University of Nebraska Department of Biochemistry Paul Black said. "As we get into cities the size of Lincoln or Hastings, you may need 10 of the reactors. But they may not be 10,000 liters, they may be 100,000 liters. So, we are trying to figure out how to compress these into a smaller space," Black said.

The technology is appealing to cities, as it will protect citizens, and eliminate potential fines from agencies like the EPA. It's also expected to produce important by-products. This could include soil supplements for farm fields, or feed products for livestock. Best of all, it's providing a new way to clean the world's most important resource.

"Among our research group, we are thinking 10 to 20 years from now the basic world economy is going to be water as the population grows around the world," businessman Vern Powers said. "We have a first adopter Ceresco, Nebraska, a great town north of Lincoln that we can access from the University easily, they are going to pair with us. We are funding all of this, and we'll put some units at Ceresco to help with any problems they have."

The work will begin in Ceresco in 2019. If all goes well, the company known as Vestal W20 is hoping the idea of using algae to remove nitrates from water will expand. Vestal officials credit a strong private public partnership involving the University of Nebraska and the state for this exciting possibility. And, they say the technology will be cost-effective. "It's really for the greater good," Black said.