Impact of Biochar Amendment, Hydraulic Retention Time, and Influent Concentration on N and P Removal in Horizontal Flow-Through Bioreactors

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Virginia Tech


The advent of industrial, fertilizer-intensive agriculture during the 20th century has promoted export of anthropogenic nutrients, spurring degradation of ecosystem biodiversity and water quality. Exported nitrogen and phosphorus are recognized drivers of this deterioration, and require management. In the mid-1990s, denitrifying bioreactors (DNBRs), a subsurface, edge-of-field best management practice (BMP) that intercepts and treats agricultural drainage by supporting nitrate-attenuating denitrification with a saturated, carbon-filled substrate, were developed. Since then, their utility has expanded, and recent studies have unearthed biochar's capability to stimulate simultaneous nitrate (NO3--N) and phosphate (PO43--P) removal in DNBRs. This study investigated biochar's potential as an amendment to the traditional woodchip media by conducting nine, five-day trials on twelve laboratory-scale, horizontal flow-through DNBR columns. Three media types were tested: woodchips (W), 90% woodchips and 10% biochar (B10), and 70% woodchips and 30% biochar (B30). Simulated agricultural drainage with four unique concentration combinations of 16.1 and 4.5 mg L-1 NO3--N and 1.9 and 0.6 mg L-1 PO43--P was delivered at hydraulic retention times (HRTs) of 3, 6, and 12 h. Mean NO3--N removal efficiencies ranged from 16.9%-93.7%, and media type was insignificant at low influent NO3--N concentrations, but B30 was the most effective at high influent NO3--N concentrations. Mean PO43--P removal efficiencies ranged from -122.0%-74.9%, with B10 and B30 significantly worse than W at removing PO43--P. These findings corroborate previous work indicating boosted NO3--N removal with biochar, but contradict studies upholding PO43--P-removing capabilities.



denitrifying bioreactor, DNBR, biochar, denitrification, nitrate, phosphate, Best Management Practice, BMP