New technology will turn water pollution into fertilizer

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One man’s waste is another man’s fertilizer.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a representative of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District announced Tuesday that a new technology planned for the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant will remove nutrient pollution from wastewater and convert it to pellets to be sold as fertilizer for crops and lawns.

The technology developed by Canadian-based Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technology, Inc.,  will be installed and operational in 2015 at an estimated cost of $30 million and a payback time of as little as three years.

“Ostara’s advanced nutrient recovery technology not only reduces nutrient load but helps protect precious area waterways that are part of Mississippi River basin,” said Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy and member of Ostara’s board of directors.

The announcement was made at the Water Environment Federation’s 86th Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference at McCormick Place.

This technology should produce approximately 10,000 – 15,000 tons of fertilizer annually, according the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which serves Cook County. Crystal Green, Ostara’s fertilizer company, will purchase the product at $400 per ton from the water reclamation district.

This revenue should offset the operation costs of the facility, said Ahren Britton, Ostara’s chief technology officer and company co-founder. Crystal Green will bag the fertilizer and sell it to consumers ranging from farmers to gardeners to golf course managers.

Ostara's technology works by crystallizing phosphorus and nitrogen found in wastewater, turning the nutrients into small pellets, which are recovered from the facility to be used as their fertilizer product.

Wastewater, containing phosphorous and nitrogen in the form of ammonia, enters Ostara's reactor where it mixes with magnesium, driving the chemical reaction that crystallizes the nutrients, said Britton. Crystallization takes between five and 10 days, and the process could remove up to 90 percent of phosphorous and 40 percent of the ammonia.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is getting a head start treating the growing problem of nutrient pollution, said Anthony Boone, Ostara’s vice president of marketing and communications.

Nutrient pollution causes algae blooms in lakes and rivers, killing off fish and other aquatic wildlife, devastating the ecosystem. It is responsible for a dead zone larger than Connecticut in the Gulf of Mexico, where virtually nothing can live. The dead zone can't support aquatic life, for instance. Major sources of nutrient pollution include agriculture, wastewater and stormwater, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Regulators are really looking at it more closely. Protection of waterways is a global issue,” Boone said. Ostara’s technology is a “tool in the arsenal” to address the problem. 

The crystal form of the Crystal Green fertilizer helps to combat nutrient pollution. Rather than quickly dissolving in water, it breaks down slowly in response to acids produced by the plant as it grows. This reduces leaching into groundwater and runoff of excess nutrients, and means fewer fertilizer applications are necessary.

Since the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant’s effluent flows downstream from the Chicago River via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, Ostara’s technology will primarily benefit waterways outside the Chicago area. But Lyman Welch, water quality program director at Alliance for the Great Lakes, said he thinks it holds promise for the Great Lakes, particularly if combined with other solutions.

“Innovative technology like this could be used by other treatment plants in the Great Lakes to help address nutrient overload, but fully addressing the nutrient problem in the Great Lakes will require cooperative actions by all sectors that contribute,” said Welch, who wasn't at the conference.

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