Drink it up: LI nitrate-buster earns NSF grant

What's in your water: Maybe not nitrates, if NSF-funded research by Northport startup Aqua Vectors comes to fruition.

The National Science Foundation is backing a Long Island innovator’s efforts to remove nitrates from wastewater – potentially, an enormous win for regional aquifers and surface waters.

Northport-based Aqua Vectors Inc., a 2010 startup trying to create new clean-water technologies based on a patent-pending electrolytic detoxification method, has received a $224,500 NSF stipend aimed at speeding the new tech to market.

Long Island water-quality issues made headlines again this week when the Environmental Working Group – a Washington-based nonprofit focused on toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands and corporate accountability – released a report estimating that water supplies for 218 million Americans, including most Long Islanders, contain unsafe levels of chromium-6, the cancer-causing chemical made infamous by real-life California crusader Erin Brockovich and the Hollywood film based on her whistleblowing efforts.

According to the EWG, nearly 90 percent of Island drinking water samples contained chromium-6, which is labeled a carcinogen – a substance or radiation that causes cancer – by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Some perspective: None of the water samples provided to the EWG by local agencies, including Long Island samples, exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limit of 100 parts per billion of total chromium. Island levels hovered well below one part per billion; at a rate of two parts per billion, chromium-6 will cause cancer in only one out of a million people who drink it for 70 years.

Mark Hopkinson: A good water sign.

Mark Hopkinson: A good water sign.

And Aqua Vectors is not after chromium-6. It’s targeting nitrates, a common groundwater contaminant in rural areas and fairly reliable indicator of the presence of other contaminants, such as bacteria and pesticides.

But the EWG’s assertions that “potentially unsafe concentrations” of carcinogens may be lurking in the water flowing from two-thirds of all American taps is a startling wakeup call regarding the quality of national supplies, making the NSF’s Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant a timely score for President Mark Hopkinson’s 2010 startup.

“Aqua Vectors and its principals recognized long ago that none of today’s technologies would be suited to addressing the impending crisis of high nitrogen in our water supplies, here and all around the United States,” Hopkinson said. “Our novel process provides an effective, inexpensive and reliable tool for polishing wastewater before it is discharged into the environment.”

Nitrate levels in Long Island’s aquifers and surface waters have increased “at an accelerating rate” since 1985, Aqua Vectors said in an announcement of the NSF funding, “and in certain areas have reached crisis levels.”

Nitrates can stimulate algae blooms, depriving the water of oxygen and releasing cyanotoxins that kill off seagrass and marine-life populations and otherwise wreak environmental havoc on wetlands, as evidenced by the regular occurrence of red tides, brown tides and fish kills around Long Island.

Aqua Vectors’ response combines multiple chemistry-based disciplines and an amalgam of anodes, cathodes, hydrogen and hydroxyl ions and flow-directing devices.

In simplest terms, a base metal is dissolved into a water solution inside an electrolytic cell, and the solution hardens into a positively charged crystalline substance. Nitrates are negatively charged, so when the metal particles are filtered out, “the nitrates go with them,” Hopkinson told Innovate LI in December.

The science is obviously much more complicated, but it may actually result in a simple, cost-effective method for reducing nitrogen levels in the discharge from wastewater treatment plants – and the NSF wants to find out, according to Barry Johnson, director of the foundation’s Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships, which will award nearly $190 million this year to nationwide startups and small businesses through its SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer Programs.

“The National Science Foundation supports small businesses with the most innovative, cutting-edge ideas that have the potential to become great commercial successes and make huge societal impacts,” Johnson said in a statement. “We hope that this seed funding will spark solutions to some of the most important challenges of our time across all areas of science and technology.”

As a recipient of a Phase I SBIR grant, Aqua Vectors is now eligible to apply for a Phase II grant that could result in another $750,000 in NSF support, plus $500,000 in additional matching funds from qualifying third-party investors.

Whether or not his company applies for or receives a Phase II grant, Hopkinson said the Phase I non-dilutive grant – earmarked for R&D purposes only – would go a long way toward turning Aqua Vectors’ evolving science into a viable product.

“This NSF grant will enable us to complete the development of our method and make it ready for bringing to market,” the president said.