'Phosphorus Innovation Challenge' Is Long On Hopes And Short On Details

Feb 1, 2018

Phosphorus is a basic building block of life. It’s in our bones, and it helps plants grow. But too much of this good thing is bad for places like Lake Champlain, where the nutrient fuels toxic algae blooms.

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration is looking for ideas on how to capture and sell that phosphorus.

The science shows the state is struggling with a phosphorus balance in the Lake: We’ve imported it into the Lake Champlain watershed by way of feed and fertilizer, but not enough leaves the system in the form of meat, milk, crops and manure.

Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore says the current imbalance is about 3,000 tons per year.

Moore was one of three top administration officials who joined the governor at a news briefing Thursday to roll out what they’re calling the “phosphorus innovation challenge.”

The plan is to turn to innovators and entrepreneurs for ideas on how to capture phosphorus from the farm waste stream and turn it into a commercial product that can be moved or sold outside the watershed. 

“Such products would reduce the need for fertilizer imports and could also be made available for sale both here in Vermont and places outside the state,” Moore said.

"The concept here is ... to crowd source the ideas, to identify entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, builders and others who have a concept to how to mitigate the impact of phosphorus before it enters the ground." — Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling

Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling says they’re looking for any and all good ideas.

“The concept here is to use what’s being done, really, throughout the world, something called a ‘reverse pitch,’ to crowd source the ideas, to identify entrepreneur, innovators, engineers, builders and others who have a concept to how to mitigate the impact of phosphorus before it enters the ground, before it enters the watershed,” he said.

The state has about $250,000 available to fund agriculture innovation projects that would improve water quality. Moore says she expects each winning proposal could get $30-$50,000 to show that it works and could be commercially viable. 

But the state has not set a goal for how much phosphorus could be removed, nor can officials estimate how much projects would ultimately cost. And they acknowledge major technical challenges – including simply removing the water from manure in order to extract the phosphorus.   

Gov. Scott says it still makes sense to look for ideas beyond state government.

“I think it’s significant to take a different approach, think outside the box, and do something no one else is doing,” he said. “Everyone else is reacting to the problem and we’re forging ahead thinking there’s another solution out there. And I believe that it’s viable.”

The state wants to get requests for proposals out within a few weeks. Once selected, the companies would then need six to nine months to fully develop their ideas.