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Putting more O in H20

Water enriched with oxygen will help irrigated crops grow faster and more vigorous, a Bloomington company hopes to prove.

AquaInnovations, Inc. makes water oxygenation systems for the sport-fishing industry. The company’s patented technology, used by major boat manufacturers, zoos and the Department of Natural Resources, keeps bait and live fish healthy during transportation and storage.

Now, AquaInnovations is extending its oxygenation technology to agriculture. The University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris is helping the company find out if strawberry plants absorb more nutrients when irrigation water is saturated with oxygen. That could lead to more robust growth and bigger fruit yields. AURI helped arrange the research, which is being combined with wool mulch trials. (See “Mulch makeover,” page 4.)

Tiny bubbles

AquaInnovations was formed in 2002 by three water treatment industry veterans to commercialize a new method of adding oxygen to water. Rick Anderson, company president, recalls the day inventor and company co-founder Jim Senkiw first demonstrated his idea.

“He dumped the device in my coffee pot and started producing oxygen. I had not seen anything like it before,” says Anderson, a 16-year veteran of the industrial water treatment field. “I knew it was significant. Right then and there, I told Jim I was in.”

Unlike conventional oxygenation systems, which pump ambient air through a diffuser into the water, Senkiw’s method produces 100-percent oxygen from the water itself. Using a form of electrolysis, the Pure Oxygen System separates water into its components – hydrogen and oxygen. The lighter hydrogen molecules rapidly escape into the atmosphere, while the oxygen molecules remain suspended in the water.

The micro and nano O2 bubbles are too small to break the surface tension of the water, so they dissolve, saturating the water with oxygen, Anderson explains. He says the battery-powered OxygenatorTM is more efficient, reliable and versatile than aeration.

Sporting new uses

The Pure Oxygen System, patented in February, has a wide range of uses, Anderson says, among them: sport fishing, aquariums, aquaculture, hydroponics, fermentation, livestock and municipal wastewater treatment and irrigation. “We’ve identified more than 50 possible applications.”

The company, which has raised $500,000 in investment capital of a $2 million Series A preferred offering, focused first on the sport fishing market. It makes three sizes of portable oxygenators for boat live wells and bait buckets, plus custom oxygenators.

Anderson got an inkling of the technology’s agricultural potential soon after landing his first big sport fishing order. He was visiting his relatives – who, incidentally, “thought I was crazy to leave a good career selling million-dollar water treatment systems to sell $50 and $100 units.”

He had the bait Oxygenator running in a container of water on the kitchen table. Later, he dumped the oxygenated water on his mother’s droopy African violet, “which was barely alive.” A week later, the plant burst into flower for the first time in five years, Anderson says.

Breathing plants

Like animals, plants also need oxygen. Plant roots use oxygen to carry out respiration, a process that enables roots to take up nutrients – or the plants will wilt and die. But would giving plant roots more oxygen boost growth? That’s the question AquaInnovations asked.

Anderson did some informal tests, growing tomato plants and germinating grass seed with regular tap water versus oxygenated water. “We saw dramatic results right away with the oxygenated water,” Anderson said, “but these weren’t controlled experiments.

So early this year, AquaInnovations approached the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association for help in setting up more rigorous testing. “The soybean growers were interested in this idea and referred the company to us,” says Al Doering, AURI technical specialist in Waseca.

Although AURI does not do agricultural production research, staff have extensive contacts. Doering and Michael Sparby, AURI project director, put Anderson in touch with horticulturalist Steve Poppe at the Morris experiment station.

Quick-start strawberries

Poppe was immediately intrigued with the oxygenator and agreed to test it on a June-bearing strawberry plot and fall-planted annual strawberries. Trials began this spring and will continue through 2005.

The ag oxygenator fits inside an irrigation pipe, saturating well water with oxygen as it flows into a drip line. The device can be scaled up to oxygenate large irrigation systems, up to 700 gallons a minute, and operates on standard current.

Poppe is especially interested in the oxygenator’s potential for annual strawberries, which are transplanted in August and bear fruit the following spring. Annual strawberry production requires less labor and pesticides than June-bearer production, and the plants are less prone to disease, Poppe says. But because the plants have only two and a half months in late summer and early fall to become established, “we need to get a lot of growth very quickly.”

Poppe is among the first researchers in the state to experiment with fall-planted annual strawberries, which could become a new commercial crop for Minnesota, Sparby says. Poppe adds: “If it works, that’s where the AquaInnovations technology might shine.”