Nitrates in Drinking Water Pose Serious
Health Problems, But Now a New Low-tech Solution from Isreal is Coming to the Rescue.
The beads contain a nitrate-munching
Rainstorms wash away what nature can't clean
up, but this often comes at a price. Runoff from agricultural fertilizers, animal waste and human sewage are
poisoning wells and aquifers with nitrates. These compounds cause harmful algae blooms and pose health risks for
pregnant women and formula-fed newborns.
Water companies currently deal with the problem in a very rudimentary way because
getting the nitrates out by reverse osmosis is too expensive. They simply dilute the nitrate-laden water, explain
professors Amos Nussinovitch and Jaap van Rijn from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The two scientists have developed a novel
low-tech solution to take nitrates out of water in a cost-effective, environmentally friendly and non-toxic
Nussinovitch, an expert in biological
carriers, and van Rijn, a specialist in bacteria, paired up to develop a bio-filter composed of tiny
Styrofoam-like white beads that carry nitrate-eating bacteria. When added to a water well, aquifer or aquarium,
the bio-filter does its job effectively and cheaply.
Showcased at WATEC
Now in the prototype stage, the product is
being tested to see how well it can work in larger bodies of water. It is being developed commercially by the
technology transfer arm of Hebrew University, Yissum, and was launched at the WATEC water conference in Tel Aviv
Water infrastructure companies everywhere
are paying attention.
Nitrates are an increasing problem for both
the developed and developing world. As our populations grow, so does the need for fertilizers, sewage reservoirs
and animals for food.
Nitrate is odorless, tasteless and
colorless, so only regular testing of wells and aquifers can detect its presence. When they drink nitrate-laden
water in formula, newborns' digestive systems respond by producing high levels of bacteria, leading to the
potentially fatal blue baby syndrome as blood oxygen decreases.
This is what the bio-filter beads look like in
Van Rijn, the same man behind an aquaculture
technology called Grow Fish Anywhere for fish farming in urban environments, says that this new technology is
meant for drinking water and aquarium water, which need to be extremely clean.
A wellspring of opportunities
The beads work so that "water goes through a
matrix and comes out clean," he tells ISRAEL21c. "For aquaria there are almost no solutions - or the ones that
exist are very unreliable. For drinking water there is reverse osmosis, but this is very
Nitrate loading is a pressing problem in
coastal areas of Israel, where van Rijn says about 50 percent of the wells are polluted due to nitrates, and in
places with similar climates, such as California and Colorado.
Yissum is now looking for commercial
partners to develop a pilot plant to provide onsite water treatment. It could be hooked up to factories,
agriculture processing plants or paper mills, for example.
Nussinovitch says that he has been working
with polymers and biodegradable materials all his life. His contribution to the project was developing the
biopolymers into an appropriate carrying mechanism to house the bacteria so that beads could entrap the bacteria
for the right amount of time before dissolving and releasing nitrogen gas.
The beads in dry form have a long shelf
life, and leave no trace behind once dissolved. They work well in both fresh and saltwater