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Clean Water Machine

Physical Address:
Integrated Research & Innovation Center, Room 314
685 South Line Street

Mailing Address:
c/o School of Food Science
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Dr. MS 2312
Moscow, ID 83844-2312

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U of I Clean Water Machine Team's Journey

May 4, 2018

“A changing climate — with rising temperatures changing the seasonality of crops and water supplies for irrigation ever constricting — will have a huge impact on agriculture. A three degree warmer world would result in agriculture being 50 percent less productive in 2050 in some parts of the world. This, in turn, will put major strain on the global food supply, with some regions bearing the brunt earlier than others.” Cecilia Reyes, Group Chief Risk Officer, Zurich Insurance Group

The challenge of the George Barley Clean Water Science Prize is low-cost removal and recovery of phosphorus from waters polluted by human activity to address toxic algae blooms. However systems thinking shows us that there are numerous co-factor problems in the observed increase in global nutrient pollution and toxic algae blooms, and one of these is climate change. Algae blooms and climate change are difficult to solve and possess “complex interdependencies” and therefore fall into a classification that social scientists call “wicked problems.” Some observers classify climate change as a “super wicked problem” that maintains these four characteristics:

  • Time is running out.
  • No central authority.
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
  • Policies discount the future irrationally.

“It is becoming more and more difficult to produce food because of the increasing variability that is a direct result of climate change.” Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union

Climate change carries considerable challenges in mitigation, adaptation and hopes for damping the trends of increasing greenhouse gasses. Nutrient pollution and the resulting algae blooms may have better hope for more rapid solution because they are localized and visible to the impacted communities, thus creating a powerful incentive for local action and change.

Lake Erie location to U of I Clean Water Machine

The Barley Prize posted by the Everglades Foundation is, as well, an incentive to accelerate algae bloom solutions. The U of I Clean Water Machine, has operated since February at the Holland Marsh agricultural canal to address nutrient pollution. This point source canal has been assessed to be about a quarter of the loading into the surrounding watershed that includes nearby Lake Simco, a waterbody of almost 300 square miles. In the Great Lakes Region, we are triangulated by Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. As shown in a 2017 satellite photo, Lake Erie has had massive algae bloom problems, and toxic compounds from these blooms have created human health risk from contaminated drinking water served by this freshwater resource.

The Holland Marsh canal drains a water-saturated and fertile “muck soil” agricultural area, and the combination of organic matter and nutrient loading from the muck and fertilizers has created a rich broth in the canal that stimulates algae growth and eutrophication. As seen in the webcam photo from our Clean Water Machine tower, the water that we are treating with our new technology is classifiable as “horrible.”

Cam feed of Holland Marsh

Our field research has addressed this “horrible” water challenge as an opportunity to see how far we could push our reactive filtration technology to clean the water, but also how we could address the “complex interdependencies” of climate change and a sustainable supply of phosphorus for future food security. One of the field approaches we are testing on site with the Clean Water Machine is our biochar water treatment.

In this approach, we add modified biochar charcoal to the water we are treating and then filter it out for recovery. Biochar is a charcoal made from agricultural or forestry biomass waste. In our technology, the biochar acts as a sponge for the nutrients in the water. As shown in the lower tank in the photo, when we add this charcoal to water, it becomes black as ink. In a way, we first start the process by making horrible water, even more horrible. The reactive filter of our process then takes over to scrub out the nutrient-laden biochar from the water, which we recover for use as fertilizer and soil amendment.

Click on image to view video. 

Baker with U of I Clean Water Machine

This nutrient upcycled biochar has increased value as a soil amendment for agriculture, and addresses the issue of finite future phosphorus resources for global food security. Biochar can help with soil health and yields, and when it is used in agriculture it sequesters carbon in the soil for about two hundred years, thus addressing climate change. We have explored the carbon footprint of our Clean Water Machine when the byproduct biochar is used in agriculture. Our modeling results show the overall water treatment plus soil amendment system becomes carbon negative when biochar is used.

While this may not be the “super solution” to the entangled “super wicked” problem of climate change and algae pollution, we are optimistic our solution-focused research will yield a harvest of hope for future food security. Our work arises in the understanding of nature developed by generations of scientists before us. We can hope the new knowledge we seek in addressing this current challenge will seed the joy of discovery in those that follow.


Martin Baker and Greg Moller standing on each side of their Clean Water Machine
Martin Baker and Greg Moller next to their U of I Clean Water Machine.

Journey Updates — 2018

“A changing climate — with rising temperatures changing the seasonality of crops and water supplies for irrigation ever constricting — will have a huge impact on agriculture. A three degree warmer world would result in agriculture being 50 percent less productive in 2050 in some parts of the world. This, in turn, will put major strain on the global food supply, with some regions bearing the brunt earlier than others.” Cecilia Reyes, Group Chief Risk Officer, Zurich Insurance Group

The challenge of the George Barley Clean Water Science Prize is low-cost removal and recovery of phosphorus from waters polluted by human activity to address toxic algae blooms. However systems thinking shows us that there are numerous co-factor problems in the observed increase in global nutrient pollution and toxic algae blooms, and one of these is climate change. Algae blooms and climate change are difficult to solve and possess “complex interdependencies” and therefore fall into a classification that social scientists call “wicked problems.” Some observers classify climate change as a “super wicked problem” that maintains these four characteristics:

  • Time is running out.
  • No central authority.
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
  • Policies discount the future irrationally.

“It is becoming more and more difficult to produce food because of the increasing variability that is a direct result of climate change.” Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union

Climate change carries considerable challenges in mitigation, adaptation and hopes for damping the trends of increasing greenhouse gasses. Nutrient pollution and the resulting algae blooms may have better hope for more rapid solution because they are localized and visible to the impacted communities, thus creating a powerful incentive for local action and change.

Lake Erie location to U of I Clean Water Machine

The Barley Prize posted by the Everglades Foundation is, as well, an incentive to accelerate algae bloom solutions. The U of I Clean Water Machine, has operated since February at the Holland Marsh agricultural canal to address nutrient pollution. This point source canal has been assessed to be about a quarter of the loading into the surrounding watershed that includes nearby Lake Simco, a waterbody of almost 300 square miles. In the Great Lakes Region, we are triangulated by Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. As shown in a 2017 satellite photo, Lake Erie has had massive algae bloom problems, and toxic compounds from these blooms have created human health risk from contaminated drinking water served by this freshwater resource.

The Holland Marsh canal drains a water-saturated and fertile “muck soil” agricultural area, and the combination of organic matter and nutrient loading from the muck and fertilizers has created a rich broth in the canal that stimulates algae growth and eutrophication. As seen in the webcam photo from our Clean Water Machine tower, the water that we are treating with our new technology is classifiable as “horrible.”

Cam feed of Holland Marsh

Our field research has addressed this “horrible” water challenge as an opportunity to see how far we could push our reactive filtration technology to clean the water, but also how we could address the “complex interdependencies” of climate change and a sustainable supply of phosphorus for future food security. One of the field approaches we are testing on site with the Clean Water Machine is our biochar water treatment.

In this approach, we add modified biochar charcoal to the water we are treating and then filter it out for recovery. Biochar is a charcoal made from agricultural or forestry biomass waste. In our technology, the biochar acts as a sponge for the nutrients in the water. As shown in the lower tank in the photo, when we add this charcoal to water, it becomes black as ink. In a way, we first start the process by making horrible water, even more horrible. The reactive filter of our process then takes over to scrub out the nutrient-laden biochar from the water, which we recover for use as fertilizer and soil amendment.

Click on image to view video. 

Baker with U of I Clean Water Machine

This nutrient upcycled biochar has increased value as a soil amendment for agriculture, and addresses the issue of finite future phosphorus resources for global food security. Biochar can help with soil health and yields, and when it is used in agriculture it sequesters carbon in the soil for about two hundred years, thus addressing climate change. We have explored the carbon footprint of our Clean Water Machine when the byproduct biochar is used in agriculture. Our modeling results show the overall water treatment plus soil amendment system becomes carbon negative when biochar is used.

While this may not be the “super solution” to the entangled “super wicked” problem of climate change and algae pollution, we are optimistic our solution-focused research will yield a harvest of hope for future food security. Our work arises in the understanding of nature developed by generations of scientists before us. We can hope the new knowledge we seek in addressing this current challenge will seed the joy of discovery in those that follow.


We will have the "Carrot Cam" up and running shortly in the U of I Clean Water Machine Tower that was also designed as a greenhouse for passive heating during the frigid Canadian winter. The only thing more fun than watching water flow is watching carrots grow. Our carrot starts were transplanted a few days ago into no fertilizer potting-soil (Scotts Miracle-Gro of course as they are a sponsor of the George Barley Water Prize) and potting-soil amended with recovered Clean Water Machine P-upcycled biochar. Both trials are watered using nutrient-laden Holland-Marsh Canal water. The CWM can recover phosphorus from polluted water onto a biochar charcoal matrix for re-use as a soil amendment.

Transplanted carrots in the U of I Clean Water Machine tower that was also designed as a greenhouse for passive heating during the frigid Canadian winter

Transplanted carrots in the U of I Clean Water Machine tower that was also designed as a greenhouse for passive heating during the frigid Canadian winter

Our project teams have done formal greenhouse studies on this process recovered biochar material before, and this current venture is just a non-controlled "science fair" demonstration project to add some fun to a stressful field research project. We work with some very bright plant scientists (we are just backyard gardeners), but to an untrained eye, the recovered, biochar-amended carrot starts are now more turgid, deeper green and taller 48-hrs after transplant (darker potting soil mix in photos is biochar amended).

Accelerated early growth and other positive plant indicators were observed in our formal, preliminary randomized block greenhouse studies last year, however the rapid initial growth change observation made possible by carrot watching was a little amazing to see. Micro- and macronutrients from the recovered biochar and perhaps some microbial factors may all play a role in this early differentiation. We know from prior lab tests that the P in the recovered biochar material is slow release.

As former swampland drained in the 1930’s by Dutch immigrants, the Holland-Marsh is a highly productive agricultural area that requires specialized farming techniques and one-of-a-kind equipment and innovative machinery since the “muck soil” grows best when saturated with water. At the University of Guelph muck soil growers conference last month in Bradford, Ontario we were pleasantly surprised to meet some growers who have had positive experiences with biochar. We can all be hopeful for some level of soil health insertion of biochar into production agriculture as it is one practical way to address climate change.

The Tower greenhouse is "doing its thing" and it was a toasty 35˚C (about 95˚F) in the Tower upper deck during a very sunny day earlier this week. We had planned for the Canadian cold but now we need to adjust Tower operations for cooling, as the days have become warmer. It was still below freezing outside overnight just a few days ago. The joy continues, as does the carrot watching.




Nikola Tesla, the brilliant electrical engineer, once said, "I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success." That thrill is the joy of discovery.

A celebration of invention and honoring the men and women who have invented was the theme of last week’s induction ceremony by the National Academy of Inventors in Washington, D.C. Following a black-tie gala at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, about one hundred and fifty inventors from across the globe were inducted into the National Academy of Inventors. I was honored to be one of the inductees. It was a fantastic couple of days!

Greg Moller week’s induction ceremony by the National Academy of Inventors in Washington, DC..

It seemed everyone I met was a rock star of technology, engineering, science or medicine innovation and there were numerous university presidents, deans or institute directors from all over the globe in the group of inductees. I am humbled by the talent and vibrancy of this community of inductees; I met dozens of these game-changers and was awestruck by their incredible accomplishments. Hearing about the credentials, titles and achievements of the panel of folks doing the academy election, I feel truly honored.

During the induction ceremony, my seatmate and fellow inductee was C.D. Mote, current president of the National Academy of Engineering and former president of the University of Maryland. During the ceremony, he whisper-narrated the amazing accomplishments of some of the inductees, including Andrew Viterbi, a USC professor and co-founder of Qualcom, Inc., who developed the Viterbi algorithm that allows for almost all digital communication such as our cell phones. My guest at the ceremony was USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Director Sonny Ramaswamy who is an outstanding scientist, communicator and leader in academics and American agricultural research.

The group of inductees was remarkable for their contributions that seemed to impact the full spectrum of societal needs. To be included in this prolific group of innovators is energizing for the hard work ahead. There is a challenge for us all to be what Einstein called, “passionately curious” in seeking solutions to the seemingly unsolvable. Innovation is a pathway for the passionately curious, not a destination.


April 1, 2018

In a 1963 speech at American University, President John F. Kennedy challenged us that “our problems are manmade therefore they can be solved by man.” In the long hours searching for the joy of discovery, those words have sustained our team’s hardships in taming a water technology solution to address both the needs of sustainable water resources and food security for all. Our task has not been easy, and we are hoping the hard work of the climb up to the top of the mountain, the ascendancy of solution, will be that magnificent view we all seek in our life endeavors.

We are chasing down the small stuff that plagues every new invention and trying to stay ahead of disaster that can often result when you are navigating the unknown and the uncharted. However sometimes the unexpected is a pleasant surprise.

Greg Moller being interviewed by NBC correspondent Anne Thompson

About ten days ago, we had a visit from NBC Nightly News at our Barley Prize site in Ontario Canada. It was a sunny but cold 20-degree morning. The photo is a screenshot of the interview from our webcam after we lifted the thermal tarps that protect us from the frigid weather. Correspondent Anne Thompson asked questions for about a half hour, and the production crew, some from the Today Show, filmed B-roll footage climbing all over our Clean Water Machine for another half hour. The producer was kind enough to wipe some mud off my face (it was a work day). Our classic Clean Water Machine wine glass of crystal clear produced water was a big hit with the crew. The concept of using biochar charcoal in water treatment to address climate change and food security was also a topic of the extended exchange. Overall it was a fun event, and I will share that it was very nice when Anne told me after the interview “You are very good at this.” I think perhaps what she saw was the passion for understanding that we the people make our problems, and therefore they can be solved by us.

Examples of filtered water to clean

A battlefield inspiration for the U.S. Marine Corps is “improvise, adapt and overcome.” We too have had to improvise, adapt and overcome challenges in this complex and often exhausting adventure of science and engineering. Our battles have been with the icy chill of the nature that surrounds us, and with the dirty “working water” that has seen hard service is supporting this unique agroecosystem. We have been on a steady path of improvisation and adaption, putting this new water treatment technology through its maiden voyage, with the expected learning as new benchmarks and limits are approached and passed.

However, something was not right with the system and performance indicators for product water quality reached an unsatisfying plateau. We adapted and improvised, but we were not overcoming. We were seeking the elusive joy of discovery but more often found ourselves stumbling in the disappointment of darkness. Taking risks with the status quo, running as far as we can with new ideas and listening to nature have been the core of our approach to clean water. This challenge in Ontario was becoming not only a test of our imagination and potential to innovate but also our ability to endure disappointment. And disappointed we were.

A couple of weeks went by where a non-stop sequence of trial and error actions helped close the gap between performance and potential, but joy remained elusive. Frustration, self-doubt, and the inevitable kicking and throwing of hardware were a rising reality.

Then today came the Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moment. In the hundreds of actions and a dozen pages of checklists that helped put this new technology together in the first days of February, we had overlooked a simple misdirected tube. While we fixed it in just a few minutes, the cost was about a hundred hours of frustration. The ugly beast, also known as “the human error rate,” had stared us down but in the end, we had “overcome.”

Water before and after U of I Clean Water Machine treatmentThe human error rate is an active field of study, and risk management analysts know that it increases under stress. In the exhaustion and stress of deployment of this field research conducted in a competitive arena, we became the victims of ourselves. The cost was a reckoning, and the cause — our human failure — was crystal clear. Fortunately, in less than an hour after the fix, our product water was to the highest standards of “crystal clear” as well. The joy of discovery was finally ours.



Our University of Idaho Clean Water Machine Team arrived over a month ago at the Holland Marsh Canal in Ontario, Canada, just north of Toronto, for the Everglades Foundation George Barley Prize Stage 3 Pilot Study Challenge. The goal of the present study is removal and recovery of nutrients from agricultural drainage to prevent harmful algae blooms in the Great Lakes region. There are eight other teams here from four countries including teams from Nanjing University, the University of Waterloo, two universities in the Netherlands working with WETSUS-the EU Water Center, the USGS and several companies. Our team and the other university teams are treating this challenge as a research opportunity for publication. The pilot study ends in late May.

The 2,400-mile drive from Moscow with a 10-ton load of technology on a 40-ft trailer was a challenging, sometimes terrifying journey, in harsh winter conditions. Most thrilling, however, was seeing that our final two-story build, never before assembled except on a computer screen, worked out wonderfully. The competition requires the solution to fit into a nine square meter footprint and we exploited that rule vertically. We were the only team that did not seek the shelter and energy cost of a heated shipping container, instead opting for passive solar heating with a south-facing greenhouse roof, relying on the natural muck “antifreeze” in the water we are treating, and building it two stories tall to put gravity to work for us. We are using infrared imaging (FLIR) to monitor temperatures and solar heating of this temporary technology installation, and the passive heating is working very well.

The teams are treating muck water from a drainage canal exiting the Holland Marsh agricultural area. We are removing the nutrients in the polluted water that causes harmful algae blooms, a problem affecting over 100,000 water bodies worldwide. This unique and productive agricultural area of muck marsh soil grows many of Canada’s vegetables, including 60 percent of their carrots.

All of the competitor teams are challenged with some truly horrible, complex water in freezing conditions. Our entry is different in that we are removing nutrients with our U of I technology and recycling them into a biochar matrix for fertilizer, to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. Although we are still doing process engineering analysis, our models tell us we are currently operating the water technology-fertilizer system as carbon negative. For the fun of it, we plan on planting carrots in the upper greenhouse of our build using the recovered soil amendment.

Designing and building this on campus in Moscow during December and January took some very long hours for the team, but a straight month of 12-14 hour workdays only broke with the local melting river ice-pack just last week. The University of Waterloo has had about six people working on site for over a month, and the Chinese Nanjing University team air-freighted their technology into Canada at the cost of about ten thousand dollars. There is an incredible level of commitment and innovative thinking arising from all of the teams participating in this challenge.

At present our U of I team is working to “break the chemical code” of this complex water, and we already have more answers than questions. The chemistry is challenging, however with solid engineering and a computerized human-machine interface, the build now operates like a robot most of the time. We are teaching it to be smarter. Sometimes it feels like we are working in a next-generation water resource operation housed inside an Apollo lunar capsule.

We have some of our industrial partners coming in for visits, and the webcam feeds will be shown at the Canadian National Nutrient Reuse and Recovery (NNRR) Forum this coming Thursday in Toronto. If you access some of these webcams at night, you will be treated to a show of blue and green disco lights; our very long hours of getting this build operational required some fun and frivolity for our sanity. Integrated for STEM ED and general public accessibility, and the “art” of sustainability, the light show from outside the cube has attracted local attention and has made the competitor space a bit more enjoyable. We are keeping it a secret that the lights are a coded communication channel with our alien overlords in a nearby galaxy, who are monitoring our progress to clean up the planet.

Contact

Clean Water Machine

Physical Address:
Integrated Research & Innovation Center, Room 314
685 South Line Street

Mailing Address:
c/o School of Food Science
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Dr. MS 2312
Moscow, ID 83844-2312

Location