How innovation in technology used to manage and treat water could spur economic development

March 07, 2024

The University of Minnesota is partnering with a consortium of science and engineering researchers across the Great Lakes region to develop technological innovations around water management and resource conservation. 

The consortium, Great Lakes ReNEW, will receive up to $160 million over the next decade from the U.S. National Science Foundation to focus on how it could create new technologies and use them to boost the economies of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. 

“The basic concept is to make research investments at a regional scale that involves university researchers, but also partners in the corporate sector and in the community, and invest in a way that creates innovation that would lead to economic development in the region,” said Jeffrey Peterson, director of the university’s Water Resources Center and one of the school’s co-leads on the project. 

The university put together a proposal to join the consortium last year. It was linked with a proposal from another group, Current, a Chicago-based organization that focuses on water innovation across the Great Lakes region. 

Developing technologies

The work of the consortium includes technologies to manage and treat water that seek to minimize negative impacts on the climate. They can sometimes have added benefits like recovering waste from water and turning it into something economically valuable. 

“There’s many things that are connected to (water management) that might not be so obvious,” Peterson said. 

Those include sensors or advancements in data science and analytics that can monitor large data streams that come from those sensors, he said. 

The ultimate goal of the project is to get the ideas out of a lab and into the field. The researchers will look at how to improve productivity for Minnesota’s farmers by recovering nitrates from water and re-using them to fertilize land. 

The University of Minnesota is working on a project to recover nutrients from water. It also has a project that focuses on sensors that can detect nutrients like nitrates, phosphates and heavy metals in water, which Tianhong Cui, the co-lead of the University of Minnesota project and professor of mechanical engineering, will be working on. 

Jeffrey Strock, a professor and soil scientist at the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research & Outreach Center in Lamberton, is involved with this effort. He works on different innovations to help crop and livestock farmers have good productivity, profitability and environmental quality. 

He’s excited about the project because there’s so much collaboration from people in different disciplines. 

Recycling water and nutrients

Some of the solutions Strock is looking at involve storing water on landscapes in ditches or farm ponds. By doing that, water could be “recycled” and irrigated back onto the landscape, allowing the resources like nitrogen and phosphorus — which were either applied as fertilizer or were already in the water — to not go to waste. 

“If you think about the last three years … we’ve had moderate to severe droughts in different parts of the state. Some places like Southern Minnesota, we don’t have wells for irrigating like you do in sandier soils in central Minnesota,” Strock said. “But what we do have are these farm ponds and these drainage ditches where we can take drainage water that’s been temporarily stored, pump it back out of those reservoirs back onto the landscape and irrigate some of the land that might be under drought conditions. It ends up bringing that water full circle.” 

He said most agricultural areas don’t have bodies of water that can be used for storage, so some innovations have involved adjustments to drainage ditches to slow the flow of water, similar to how urban drainage systems manage stormwater runoff.

“(That) can potentially help with, you know, downstream flooding. It can potentially help with things like reducing nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, that might be in the water,” Strock said. 

Cui is developing sensors that can monitor nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals in drainage water in real time. Strock said having that data from the sensors will allow certain water management processes to happen in preparation for weather events, creating more productivity for farmers and keeping the water quality up to standards. 

“Say they know there’s a storm coming — those sensors will allow water in water bodies to drain and create storage capacity. Before that storm event we can drain more rapidly some of the water … that’s currently there,” Strock said. “Then that storm event happens, conceptually what our idea here is, you can actually then slow that water back down and create some storage capacity in that system, to then hold back the new flush of water and nutrients that might be coming out of our (agricultural) lands.” 

Strock is working with the Cottonwood Soil and Water Conservation District, which has an 11,0000-acre watershed. He applied for a grant through the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which he thinks could complement the larger U.S. National Science Foundation grant and help to manage and clean the water in the drainage ditches that lead to Cottonwood Lake. 

The technology developed through the NSF research, he said, could really help the Cottonwood district. “There’s an absolute application of the technology that we’re developing in a watershed like that,” he said. 

A ‘decarbonized’ economy

The “Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine,” which the University of Minnesota is part of, is one of ten such engines that seek to improve innovation across the nation and foster regional economic competitiveness through a near $1.6 billion investment from the NSF. 

A central focus of the grant is creating a “decarbonized circular blue economy,” which Peterson described as a system of water management that can also generate economic value for the region. 

Cui, for example, is in communication with companies in the water management sector who would be interested in implementing these technologies. Those private companies are who municipalities would then work with in implementing the technologies in water treatment plants.

“You’re taking resources out and reusing them for other things and creating value along the way. That circular blue economy that’s being referenced, there’s the circularity of resources associated with water and, hopefully, finding technologies that generate new kinds of economic value,” Peterson said.