Denitrifying bioreactor woodchip recharge: Media properties after nine years

L. Christianson, G. Feyereisen, C. Hay, U. Tschirner, K. Kult, N. Wickramarathne, N. Hoover, M. Soupir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


There is a lack of information on denitrifying bioreactors treating subsurface drainage water at the end of their initial design life due to the relative newness of the technology and the relatively long estimated life. A denitrifying bioreactor (15 m L × 7.6 m W × 1.1 m D) installed in August 2008 in Greene County, Iowa, was recharged with new woodchips in November 2017 (age 9.25 years), providing the opportunity to evaluate the properties of the wood media at the end of design life. The objective was to pair a battery of physical, chemical, and nitrate-N removal tests on the wood media harvested from the bioreactor with field observations to assess likely reasons why denitrifying bioreactors treating tile drainage may need to be recharged. The two types of wood media harvested from the bioreactor (termed woodchips and mixed shreds) had median particle sizes (D50) of 12.1 and 7.7 mm, respectively, and saturated hydraulic conductivities of 4.2 ±3.0 and 3.1 ±1.0 cm s-1 (mean ± standard deviation), which were within the range of reported values for woodchips, albeit at the low end. The wood media carbon content and quality had degraded (e.g., lignocellulose indices of 0.63 to 0.74, nearing the range of decomposition stabilization), although batch tests suggested the robustness of wood as a carbon source to support nitrate removal (e.g., 65% nitrate concentration reduction in drainage water). Woodchip degradation along with sedimentation from the drainage system likely reduced conductivities over time. Development of preferential flow paths through the bioreactor was indicated by low bioreactor outflow rates (i.e., reduced permeability) and reduced hydraulic efficiency based on conservative tracer testing. These changes in media properties and linked impacts resulted in the need to recharge this bioreactor after nine years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)407-416
Number of pages10
JournalTransactions of the ASABE
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was partially funded by USDA-NIFA Hatch Project ILLU-802-925, Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, and the soybean checkoff through the Iowa Soybean Association. Thanks to undergraduate students J. Roh for helping with the batch testing, J. Mrozek and K. Holmberg for assistance with the hydraulic conductivity testing, and T. Schu-macher and S. Okkema for sieve analyses and C/N testing.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. All rights reserved.


  • Denitrifying bioreactor
  • Hydraulic conductivity
  • Nitrate
  • Water quality


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