Bioreactor Merging Environmental Stewardship, Agriculture at Barton Center

bioreactorGORDONVILLE, Mo., May 13, 2014 – A bioreactor intended to eliminate water pollution caused by farming practices was installed last week at Southeast Missouri State University’s David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center in Gordonville, Mo.

The bioreactor, designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), was installed by a local contractor in the crop science unit of the Barton Agriculture Research Unit and will manage water from a 25-acre land parcel.

A bioreactor is an underground chamber designed to remove nutrients from farm fields fitted with a subsurface drainage system, said Dr. Michael Aide, chair of Southeast’s Department of Agriculture. The bioreactor takes water from farm fields that have nutrients and removes those nutrients from the water via a carbon source (wood chips) placed in the chamber. The wood chips break down the nitrate in the water, and the water is then supplied to streams in a completely pure state.

“We have been planning for this for several years,” Aide said.

The David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center, in close participation with USDA-NRCS, is part of a national initiative to couple environmental stewardship with farming practices designed to promote profitability, Aide said.

Mark Nussbaum, area engineer with the USDA-NRCS, said the bioreactor is designed to capture nitrogen from fertilizer in runoff before it enters streams, which feed into the Mississippi River and ultimately end up in a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The bioreactor will capture nitrogen from water runoff during the dormant season from about mid-October to mid-April.

“The NRCS is committed to reducing nitrogen pollution in addressing this dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” Nussbaum said.

National environmental officials say excess nitrogen in the water is causing hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen in the water, thus killing the shrimp and fish population.

Nussbaum says bioreactors are a new agricultural initiative. The bioreactor at the Barton Center is one of the first to be built in the Midwest, he said, adding the University of Illinois has one, and Iowa State University has installed two.

“I am really excited to see this one go into operation,” Nussbaum said. “It is still really in the research phase” as a nutrient pollution reduction tool.

“There are very few to the size and scale” of the bioreactor installed at the Barton Center, he said, adding Southeast’s facility is tailor-made for this type of unit. The David M. Barton’s controlled subsurface drainage irrigation system is one of the best nationally, he said.

“This is one of the few sites where we can accurately know the outflow into the field,” Nussbaum said.

The controlled subsurface drainage irrigation system at the David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center is an advanced technology that allows surplus water to be removed from the soil during periods of wet weather and supplies water to the soil during dry periods,

“Bioreactors offer the promise to limit nutrient migration from agriculture fields and thus eliminate water pollution perceived as contributed by farming practices,” Aide said.

Placing the bioreactor with the existing controlled subsurface drainage/irrigation system already in place makes the David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center the largest research facility of its type for promoting both drainage water quality and farm profitability in the United States.

Aide says students from Southeast’s Department of Agriculture, along with those in the environmental science and chemistry programs, will be involved in monitoring the efficiency of the facility to limit nutrient migration for the next three years. Students will be involved in soil and water sampling and analysis, crop production and data evaluation, he said.

Cost of the equipment was $17,000, Aide said.