$10 Million George Barley Water Prize Competition Names Stage 1 Winners

July 14, 2017

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Stage 1 of the Everglades Foundation’s (Palmetto Bay, Fla.) George Barley Water Prize competition is complete. Three teams continue on their journey toward one earning a $10-million prize, which will be awarded to the creator of a lasting, scalable, and cheap solution to reducing high phosphorus content in waterways.

At a ceremony held March 22 by the Everglades Foundation (Palmetto Bay, Fla.), Prashanth Kumar of overall Stage 1 winning team WETSUS NaFRAd (third from left) accepts $25,000 in prize money alongside (from left) Mary Barley, wife of late conservationist George Barley; Nathalie Olijslager-Jaarsma, consul-general of the Netherlands; and Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. Photo courtesy of Jenny Abreu Photography.

At a ceremony held March 22 by the Everglades Foundation (Palmetto Bay, Fla.), Prashanth Kumar of overall Stage 1 winning team WETSUS NaFRAd (third from left) accepts $25,000 in prize money alongside (from left) Mary Barley, wife of late conservationist George Barley; Nathalie Olijslager-Jaarsma, consul-general of the Netherlands; and Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. Photo courtesy of Jenny Abreu Photography.

From July 2016 through January 2017, teams from 13 countries submitted more than 75 video entries detailing a diverse set of solutions. By March, a panel of nearly 30 international experts in fields ranging from chemistry to communications had selected three of those entrants as Stage 1 winners. While the three teams were recognized as current frontrunners in the competition, no entries have yet been eliminated. New entrants still are invited to submit projects for Stage 2, which will be ongoing through August 2017.

Teams blueXgreen, AquaCal Ag-Bag, and WETSUS NaFRAd received a combined $35,000 in prize money as they prepare to bring their ideas from theory to practice for Stage 2 of the competition. Stages 2 and 3 will narrow the field to just four contestants. The winner of the fourth and final stage will receive $10 million.

“This water prize is not just about [phosphorus],” said Melodie Naja, chief scientist at the Everglades Foundation. “It’s about clean water. It’s about how we solve one of humanity’s greatest challenges: how to secure fresh water for future generations.”

Using flocculation and adsorption to capture nutrients

Representing overall Stage 1 winning team WETSUS NaFRAd, Prashanth Kumar prepares to join more than 75 other teams in Stage 2 of the George Barley Water Prize competition, which is already underway. In November 2020, one winning team will receive a $10 million prize. Photo courtesy of Jenny Abreu Photography.

Representing overall Stage 1 winning team WETSUS NaFRAd, Prashanth Kumar prepares to join more than 75 other teams in Stage 2 of the George Barley Water Prize competition, which is already underway. In November 2020, one winning team will receive a $10 million prize. Photo courtesy of Jenny Abreu Photography.

WETSUS NaFRAd, the overall Stage 1 winner, received $25,000 in prize money. The team competes on behalf of the European Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Water Technology (WETSUS; Leeuwarden, Netherlands), with researchers from Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University, both in the Netherlands.

The Natural Flocculation Reversible Adsorption (NaFRAd) solution would use bioflocculants, or polymers harvested from microorganisms used in wastewater treatment, to capture particulate phosphorus in water. Remaining soluble phosphorus would be removed by an adsorbent bed; calcium hydroxide could be used on these beds to regenerate calcium phosphate, a raw material for fertilizers.

“Our proposed solution has a small footprint, offers high throughput, and the flexibility to meet changing demands,” said Prashanth Kumar, a researcher with the team, in its video submission.

Transforming nutrients into fertilizer

Team blueXgreen, led by University of Idaho (Moscow) environmental chemist Greg Moller, received $5000 for its N-E-W Tech solution. Based on the University of Idaho’s reactive filtration platform process, the technology is designed to use chemistry to turn harmful nitrogen and phosphorus into useful fertilizers.

In a video describing the solution, Moller explains that a simple, high-flow series of connected filters and reactors will mix phosphorous-laden water with biochar (charcoal made from agricultural waste), iron salts, and ozone. The chemical interplay between the ingredients binds phosphorus to the biochar, removing it from water and making the solution a carbon-negative water treatment process. The enhanced biochar then can be used to create fertilizer.

“Phosphorus is a finite resource, and the ability to recycle it will have huge implications in creating food security for the future,” Moller said in the video.

Capturing phosphorus from agricultural land

Likewise, the AquaCal Ag-Bag team sees chemistry as a viable solution to reduce and reuse phosphorus. The proposed solution, developed by Argon Sustainable Aragonite Products LLC (Boca Raton, Fla.) and Calcean (Seymour, Ind.), would harness the natural uptake ability of aragonite, one of two common forms of calcium carbonate.

“Oolitic aragonite is biogenically renewable and is able to naturally absorb phosphorus,” said Charlie Kashiwa, team leader, in his video submission.

The series of passive treatment procedures begins with adding aragonite to livestock feeds. Aragonite acts as a calcium supplement for livestock that reduces phosphorous content in animal waste. Farmers can place the Ag-Bag — a large filter filled with aragonite that separates agricultural lands from waterways — along the perimeter of their land. The bag absorbs any remaining phosphorous produced by plants and livestock, preventing water from being contaminated.

The team also proposes adding a powdered aragonite into stormwater treatment sites or constructed wetlands. When the water leaves these areas, it could be directed through small, aragonite-based “reef balls” to capture any remaining phosphorus. The phosphorus-rich aragonite can be collected and sold for use as fertilizer or as nutrient-rich structures for vine crops.

“Waters around the world today are polluted with phosphorus as a result of agricultural and livestock runoff. We are ready to implement our design and start cleaning up our waters,” Kashiwa said. The team also received $5000 for its submission.

─ Justin Jacques, WEF Highlights

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