It’s a clean machine

University of Idaho research scientist Martin Baker pulls a glass of water from the Clean Water Machine. He says the water’s not yet safe to drink, but the machine has the capability of producing drinking water.

PARMA — University of Idaho scientists built a machine to clean harmful elements out of water in hopes of revolutionizing how groundwater is cleaned in Idaho and around the world.

The Clean Water Machine takes water contaminated with phosphorus and nitrous oxide from agriculture and runs it through a series of tanks and filters while introducing iron. The phosphorus and nitrous oxide bonds to the iron and is separated using sand.

“Basically, we’re cleaning the water based on natural processes,” said Dan Strawn, associate professor of soil chemistry at the university.

The university has a site near Parma where it is testing agricultural runoff water that typically would have made its way into the Boise River.

“People have got to realize, rivers are not supposed to be green,” Strawn said.

The phosphorus and nitrous oxide from local agriculture can cause algae blooms that are harmful to the river.

There are wetlands near the river, which naturally purify water that’s returned to the river, but often the plants can’t capture all of the harmful nutrients, Strawn said.

While the machine does clean harmful nutrients from the water, the water is not immediately safe to drink. However, an additional process can be added to create safe-to-drink water right from the machine.

The Clean Water Machine isn’t just for local water issues. The university would like to take it to a national or international scale.

It has already qualified for the last round of the George Barley Water Prize, a Florida-based competition — with a $10 million prize — that seeks to clean algae from the Everglades.

Strawn said he’s unsure if the university will participate in the final round, as a machine with the capability of pumping roughly a million gallons a day is required. The pilot version of the clean water machine can pump around 20,000 gallons a day, he said.

However, the machine has uses all around the world.

“Right now, there’s not a lot of places that are trying to clean surface water,” he said. Still, it’s a need for communities that have surface water issues.

“The profile of this problem is increasing,” he said.

There are other machines that separate out phosphorus and nitrous oxide, such as Boise’s Dixie Drain. What makes the Clean Water Machine different is the ability to recycle the nutrients that are harmful to the river and good for plants.

If biochar, a type of charcoal, is introduced to the filtration process, it creates a fertilizer with the iron and phosphorus compound that can be reused.

Other filtration processes bind the nutrients to aluminum, which cannot be spread onto plants, Strawn said.

This could be particularly useful for farmers in Europe, which is dependent on phosphorus imports, he said.

Testing on Wednesday warranted a visit from Michael Parrella, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at U of I.

“I think perhaps it has a greater national profile than it does in Idaho,” Parella said. He added that the machine has a lot of uses in Idaho, and he believes this technology can help people worldwide.

Right now, the machine is more expensive than alternatives, such as the Dixie Drain Boise uses or natural wetlands processes. However, Parrella believes over time it will become more economical.

He said he wants the university to take this to a bigger scale in the near future.

The work was largely funded from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, as well as a $60,000 equipment grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The project is done in cooperation with Clean Water Partners, an Idaho-based group that establishes and maintains wetlands.

The machine is pumping the clean runoff into wetlands managed by the group. Strawn said Clean Water Partners has a discharge permit into the Boise River; the university does not.

The plants that inhabit the wetlands do effectively what the machine does — they suck up nutrients from agricultural runoff and return clean water to the river.

“Now we have a little collection of pretty much everything that grows in this area,” said Doug Jones, a partner with the group.

Jones said the machine is extremely useful for cleaning water on the spot when other methods are not available, outside of its other applications.

Hal Anderson, another partner for Clean Water Partners, noted that while water discharged from Boise River Basin reservoirs is very clean, by the time it reaches the Parma area, it’s full of harmful nutrients.

“What we found was a fairly simple solution,” Anderson said — let the wetlands clean it.

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