MORRIS, Minn. — Kara Nell likens her work to developing a very special claw game.
Nell, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota Morris, is trying to develop a material to remove nitrates from water sources.
Water systems in Minnesota can have excess nitrates, introduced by agricultural fertilizers, Nell explains. Excess nitrification in drinking water can lead to suffocation in infants and may be cancer-causing. In the environment it is responsible for algal blooms, which can lead to aquatic die outs.
“It’s causing problems,” Nell says. “But we can’t just stop using fertilizer.”
Nell came to the University of Minnesota Morris in 2017 from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. She holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Oregon and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Albion College. She completed postdoctoral research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Her expertise is in environmental chemistry, materials chemistry, supramolecular chemistry and organic/inorganic synthesis.
Nell didn’t grow up on a farm, but she has farm roots in her family.
“My cousins were the biggest farmers in Marshall” Michigan, she says.
And she knows the importance of fertilizer to grow more crops on less land. So, she’s working on creating solutions to pull nitrates from the water — like a claw game that only can pull a very specific toy out of the pile of stuffed animals.
Nell stresses that she hasn’t found the right solution yet, and nothing she’s worked on is market-ready. She’s working with engineers on some ideas and how to make them practical. Some options include something like a water filter that would pull nitrates out, like a Brita filter, or pellets. The substance could be placed in the water to eliminate the nitrates.
Nell says farms in California reuse irrigation water until the water becomes too saturated with nitrates. If she can come up with a substance that would eliminate the nitrates, the water could continue to be used, again and again. In other places, she speculates it could be used in water treatment centers. And it could save water systems everywhere from growing problems.
“If we can remove excess nitrate from our water systems, we can lessen environmental and health impacts and still produce the crops we need,” she says.