An estimated 9 to 10 percent of Wisconsin wells have tested over safe limits for nitrate.
Studies have estimated that 90% of nitrate in groundwater comes from spreading of synthetic fertilizers and dairy manure on farm fields, with most of the remainder from septic systems.
Nitrate behaves differently. Relatively little lingers near roots where it can be absorbed. Water washes it down into shallow groundwater that is the source of drinking water for one-quarter of Wisconsin residents.
Legumes and alfalfa, take up nitrogen before it can reach groundwater, but are not as profitable as corn. When prices rise for corn, which requires heavy applications of nitrogen-based fertilizer, farmers quickly convert acreage and boost spreading. Wisconsin farmers applied over 200 million pounds of nitrogen in excess of UW-Extension recommendations.
Not only does the fertilizer create toxic drinking water, but the phosphorus in fertilizer and manure contributes to abnormal algae growth in lakes and streams when it runs off the land with rain and snowmelt.
Drinking water contaminated with more than 10 milligrams per liter of nitrate poses acute risks to infants and women who are pregnant, a possible risk to fetuses in early stages of pregnancy, and a longer-term risk of serious disease in adults.
Algenol Biofuels, located in Southwest Florida, was founded in 2006 and is a young, but rapidly developing and sophisticated company. What makes this company different than other young businesses; they are producing ethanol using algae.
Algae, simple photosynthetic plants that live in water, are among some of the oldest living organisms on earth. Most species can only be seen with a microscope, but others can form dense mats of vegetation on surface water. This is a problem that is plaguing many lakes and waterways around the World. Algae are autotrophic meaning they can convert physical energy from sun light into chemical energy in the form of reduced carbon.
Algenol can produce ethanol for less than $1 per gallon using sunlight, carbon dioxide, and saltwater. The company targets commercial production at 6,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. It’s exciting to think that the smelly mess on the water’s surface that scares swimmers away is actually beneficial. Well, unfortunately that isn’t exactly the case.
The algae used to produce the ethanol is not harvested from waterways, it is grown. Algenol grows algae in closed and sealed plastic bags which allow for high solar transmission. The ethanol is produced by the algae, sunlight, and seawater and then separated by drop in temperature as the sun goes down. There is much more science involved, but this is the meat and potatoes of the conversion.
The environmental benefits of algae to ethanol productions including the fact that this production method uses saltwater rather than freshwater for production, also, since the algae is grown in special plastic bags, land that is not good for farming or desert land is ideal. The most important environmental impact the production has is that it consumes and recycles CO2 that would have otherwise been emitted, and converts it into usable fuel.
With a focus on green energy, both the government and energy companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on algae research. Some researchers however see some serious hurdles that stand in the way of algae becoming a cheap and easy fuel source; such as the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced. Algenol may have already cleared that hurdle with the sealed bag it uses in its production of ethanol and soon we may be saving and seeing green at the pump.