Advances in Nutrient Recovery Technology: Approaches to Controlling Recovered Product Chemistry


Our recent work has focused on developing approaches to nutrient management and recovery, with a particular focus on using electrochemical and membrane technologies to control the chemistry of the recovered nutrient products. We are interested in being able to recover both ammonia and phosphate, and our goal is to create recycled fertilizer products that can allow the agricultural community to control the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus in the recycled fertilizer products and to control whether those fertilizer products are in liquid form or in solid form. With the electrochemical technology focus, we see benefits that include no required chemical dosing, scalable reactor design, and the ability to couple to renewable energy sources. Our engineering research on nutrient recovery technology is conducted within a team that includes life cycle assessment, economic analysis, agronomic greenhouse and row crop studies, agricultural sector outreach, and the development of a decision-support tool to help farmers understand technology options for water and nutrient management.

What Did We Do?

We have investigated an electrochemical cell design that includes a magnesium metal anode and a stainless-steel cathode. The corrosion of the magnesium anode results in the release of magnesium cations into solution, and these magnesium cations promote the precipitation of struvite, otherwise known as magnesium ammonium phosphate hexahydrate (Figure 1). We have investigated how operating conditions of the electrochemical cell, including voltage, residence time, batch vs flow, and membrane separation of the two electrodes, affect nutrient recovery efficiency and the overall chemistry of the recovered precipitate. Our studies have included control experiments on synthetic wastewater compositions relevant to hog and dairy farm wastewaters, while we have also conducted laboratory-scale studies on natural wastewater samples from both agricultural and municipal sources. To demonstrate initial scale-up of an electrochemical reactor, we have designed a bench-scale reactor (Figure 2) that is capable of producing kilogram-level batches of struvite.

Figure 2. (a) Bench-scale batch reactor demonstration for kg-level struvite precipitation. (b) One engineering challenge is the precipitation of struvite on the electrode surface.

What Have We Learned?

The production of struvite from an electrochemical reactor can be controlled by the applied voltage and residence time of the wastewater in the reactor. Changes in reactor design, including the inclusion of a membrane to separate the anode and cathode and operation in batch vs flow mode, can change the composition of the struvite precipitate and can cause a change in the balance of struvite formed vs hydrogen gas formed from the electrochemical cell. We are also able to produce K-struvite, a potassium-based alternative to conventional struvite, that includes potassium rather than ammonium, and the production of K-struvite allows the recovery of the phosphate in a particulate fertilizer while also allowing the separation and recovery of ammonia in a separate liquid stream. We have learned that one of the primary challenges to the electrochemical reactor operation is fouling of the electrodes by the struvite precipitate (Figure 2), and we have developed a dynamic voltage control approach that enables minimal electrode fouling and therefore increases struvite recovery and decreases energy consumption. Our energy consumption values are similar to that of chemical precipitation processes that have been developed for nutrient recovery.

Future Plans

Future plans include further development and optimization of the dynamic voltage control approach to electrochemical reactor operation, which will allow us to control electrode fouling. We also plan to continue working with natural wastewater samples and further develop flow cell reactor design to understand how to translate our batch reactor studies to a flow reactor environment. Studies on K-struvite will focus on understanding the kinetics of K-struvite precipitation and the competing reactions (e.g., calcium precipitation and struvite precipitation) that might impact K-struvite recovery.


Lauren F. Greenlee, Associate Professor, Pennsylvania State University

Corresponding author email address

Additional authors

Laszlo Kekedy-Nagy, Postdoctoral Fellow, Concordia University

Ruhi Sultana, Graduate Research Assistant, Pennsylvania State University

Amir Akbari, Graduate Research Assistant, Pennsylvania State University

Ivy Wu, Graduate Research Assistant, Colorado School of Mines

Andrew Herring, Professor, Colorado School of Mines

Additional Information

    1. Kekedy-Nagy, Z. Anari, M. Abolhassani, B.G. Pollet, L.F. Greenlee. Electrochemical Nutrient Removal from Natural Wastewater Sources and its Impact on Water Quality. Water Research (2022), 210, 118001, DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2021.118001.
    2. Kékedy-Nagy, M. Abolhassani, R. Sultana, Z. Anari, K.R. Brye, B.G. Pollet, L. F. Greenlee. The Effect of Anode Degradation on Energy Demand and Production Efficiency of Electrochemically Precipitated Struvite, Journal of Applied Electrochemistry (2021), DOI: 0.1007/s10800-021-01637-y.
    3. Kékedy-Nagy, M. Abolhassani, S.I. Perez Bakovic, J.P. Moore II, B.G. Pollet, L.F. Greenlee. Electroless Production of Fertilizer (Struvite) and Hydrogen from Synthetic Agricultural Wastewaters, Journal of the American Chemical Society (2020), 142(44), 18844-18858. DOI: /10.1021/jacs.0c07916.
    4. Wu, A. Teymouri, R. Park, L.F. Greenlee, and A.M. Herring. Simultaneous Electrochemical Nutrient Recovery and Hydrogen Generation from Model Wastewater Using a Sacrificial Magnesium Anode, Journal of the Electrochemical Society (2019), 166(16), E576-E583. DOI: 10.1149/2.0561916jes.


The authors acknowledge funding from the USDA NIFA AFRI Water for Food Production Systems program, grant #2018-68011-28691 and funding from the National Science Foundation, grant #1739473.


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