Fertilizer and water are essential ingredients to support the farming that feeds more than 7.7 billion people on the planet. But while fertilizer is beneficial for growing food, nitrogen-based compounds called nitrates from fertilizer-contaminated runoff and other industrial processes can also pollute already scarce clean water sources. We can’t live without water or fertilizer, so something must be done.

Christopher Muhich, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, is working with a multi-institute research team to develop a new process that can efficiently turn nitrate-contaminated wastewater and polluted groundwater into valuable ammonia and drinkable water.

“The generation of a useful product from waste, or upcycling, solves two problems at once: removing a toxin and generating a useful product with a lower energy input,” Muhich says.

The ammonia generated from this process can later be used to produce ammonium chloride, an important fertilizer, while the decontaminated water can be released into the ecosystem or further purified for municipal uses.

The results of this research — conducted with ASU, Rice UniversityPacific Northwestern National LaboratoryArgonne National LaboratoryOak Ridge National Laboratory and Canadian Light Source researchers and facilities — were recently published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

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