Nitrous oxide and methane production and consumption at five full-size denitrifying bioreactors treating subsurface drainage water

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Nitrate (NO3 ) removal in denitrifying bioreactors is influenced by flow, water chemistry, and design, but it is not known how these widely varying factors impact the production of nitrous oxide (N2O) or methane (CH4) across sites. Woodchip bioreactors link the hydrosphere and atmosphere in this respect, so five full-size bioreactors in Illinois, USA, were monitored for NO3 , N2O, and CH4 to better document where this water treatment technology resides along the pollution swapping to climate smart spectrum. Both surface fluxes and dissolved forms of N2O and CH4 were measured (n = 7–11 sampling campaigns per site) at bioreactors ranging from <1 to nearly 5 years old and treating subsurface drainage areas from between 6.9 and 29 ha. Across all sites, N2O surface and dissolved volumetric production rates averaged 1.0 ± 1.6 mg N2O-N/m3-d and 24 ± 62 mg dN2O-N/m3-d, respectively, and CH4 production rates averaged 6.0 ± 26 mg CH4-C/m3-d and 310 ± 520 mg dCH4-C/m3-d for surface and dissolved, respectively. However, N2O was consistently consumed at one bioreactor, and only three of the five sites produced notable CH4. Surface fluxes of CH4 were significantly reduced by the presence of a soil cover. Bioreactor denitrification was relatively efficient, with only 0.51 ± 3.5 % of removed nitrate emitted as N2O (n = 48). Modeled indirect N2O emissions factors were significantly lower when a bioreactor was present versus absent (EF5: 0.0055 versus 0.0062 kg N2O-N/kg NO3-N; p = 0.0011). While further greenhouse gas research on bioreactors is recommended, this should not be used as an excuse to slow adoption efforts. Bioreactors provide a practical option for voluntary water quality improvement in the heavily tile-drained US Midwest and elsewhere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number170956
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Apr 1 2024


  • Denitrification
  • Nitrate
  • Redox
  • Tile drainage
  • Woodchip

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry


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