First Measurement of Anammox in Groundwater tested by USGS

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently conducted the very first field measurements of anammox activity in groundwater, proving nitrogen removal from groundwater can happen through the act of naturally occurring bacteria. Researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the University of Connecticut also assisted in this project.

Anammox (anaerobic ammonium oxidation) is a process completed by naturally occurring bacteria with the ability to concurrently eliminate ammonium, while reducing nitrogen oxides, which effectively unites the two to produce a non-toxic nitrogen gas.

Eliminating Water Contaminants with Anammox

During the past century, humans have radically transformed the global nitrogen budget by converting nitrogen gas from air to create ammonium and nitrate — now leading fixed nitrogen contaminants that can be found in surface water and groundwater throughout the world. Fixed nitrogen will be a potential water contaminant until it is converted back to nitrogen gas. The only way to eliminate the additional fixed nitrogen is to chemically transform it back into a nitrogen gas.

“Virtually all terrestrial and aquatic environments now contain extra fixed nitrogen from human activities, including groundwater, the planet’s primary freshwater resource,” said Richard Smith, a USGS research hydrologist and lead author of the investigation.”

Scientists discovered anammox 20 years ago in wastewater treatment systems. Since then, it has been studied in laboratories and found to have significant ecological importance in marine and other surface water settings.

“Because anammox is a process that can supply its own organic carbon by fixing carbon dioxide, naturally occurring anammox bacteria are ideally suited for life in groundwater, where they could potentially be important for fixed nitrogen removal,” Smith said. “While practical applications are still in the distant future, this process could be particularly important where groundwater is discharging to surface waters and coastal environments.”

The researchers concluded that anammox was active in the subsurface during a number of geological conditions, including when concentrations of groundwater ammonium were lower. Activity rates were relatively low, but the team determined that anammox had the potential to impact inorganic nitrogen concentrations when groundwater residence times were suitably lengthy.

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