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Mineral sorbents for ammonium recycling from industry to agriculture

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In tropical environments, nutrient-poor soils are commonly found, leading to high fertilizers application rates to support agricultural activities. In contrast, anthropogenic activities generate large amounts of effluents containing nitrogen. In this study, two minerals (natural zeolite and vermiculite) were tested to remove NH4+ from an industrial effluent with high pH and contents in Na+ and K+. Afterwards, they were tested as an alternative slow-release fertilizer in the soil. To verify the best conditions to adsorb NH4+, batch tests were conducted using synthetic solutions and an industrial effluent. In general, the efficiency of both minerals in removing NH4+ was high (85% for zeolite and almost 70% for vermiculite) as well as the ability to decrease the industrial effluent pH. In this process, more NH4+ and K+ ions were removed in comparison with Na+, which remained in solution. These minerals were tested as slow-release fertilizers by leaching with distilled water (both minerals releasing 2 mg L−1 NH4+) and with an acid solution (releasing 10 mg L−1 NH4+ from zeolite and 50 mg L−1 NH4+ from vermiculite—corresponding only to 12% of total NH4+ retained by zeolite and 29% by vermiculite). During the test of soil incubation with zeolite-NH4+, the NH4+ ions of the exchangeable sites were retained for a longer period, minimizing their loss by leaching and biological nitrification. Consequently, soil acidification was prevented. Therefore, both minerals showed high efficiency in removing NH4+ from solution which can then be slowly released as a nutrient in the soil.

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We thank the anonymous referees and the editor for their valuable comments and suggestions.


The research was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation, FAPESP (grants #2011/13168-1 and #2019/03595-1). We thank Mrs. Elizabeth Almeida from Reciclagem de Metais Fernão Dias Ltda., Celta Brasil, and Brasil Minérios S.A. We also thank CAPES for the scholarship of Luis Fernando Wu, and CNPq for the scholarship of Thais de Oliveira Mariano.

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Correspondence to Mirian Chieko Shinzato.

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Shinzato, M.C., Wu, L.F., Mariano, T.O. et al. Mineral sorbents for ammonium recycling from industry to agriculture. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-020-07873-7

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  • Zeolite
  • Vermiculite
  • Industrial effluent
  • Ammonium
  • Removal
  • Fertilizer