Contest pursues solution to algae, and the prizes are dollars, in millions

[USA] Calling all entrepreneurs: If you have what it takes to stop the world’s growing algae menace, you could win $10 million.

The unusual bounty is being offered by the Everglades Foundation of Palmetto Bay, Fla., near Miami.

Applications will be accepted starting next June, with another six years of review. In addition to the grand prize, the foundation is dividing up another $1.2 million in prize money over six years to runners-up. In all, 18 prizes and a total of $11.2 million will be awarded.

And while initial stories about it suggested the focus was South Florida, the prize director and other foundation officials told The Blade in a conference call last Thursday they are seeking proposals for global solutions, including western Lake Erie.

In fact, the foundation is negotiating with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment for a site in that Canadian province where the top choice could be tested for two years. A two-year pilot program will likely be required in Ontario, possibly in the western Lake Erie region, and along Florida’s Kissimmee River before a winner is selected, Sonia Rodriguez, prize director, said.

The Foundation employs a team of scientists to serve as technical expert sources for the environmental community. Jessica Hodder/Everglades Foundation
The Foundation employs a team of scientists to serve as technical expert sources for the environmental community. Jessica Hodder/Everglades Foundation

The prize is the largest known incentive of its kind to tackle a global water-quality issue, surpassing a $1 million offer made in 2014 by Tulane University and the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation for science-based solutions to mysterious pockets of little or no oxygen in water, known as “dead zones.”

Louisiana has dead zones in the Mississippi River, which is fed nutrients by 33 upstream states and two Canadian provinces.

But dead zones also exist in Lake Erie and other bodies of water around the world.

Whether it’s algae or dead zones, common denominators for water problems are phosphorus, nitrogen, and other fertilizers.

Since the modern era of sewage treatment was ushered in by the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, most of the general problem of excessive nutrients has been associated with different forms of agricultural runoff — the combination of commercially made fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen, and the spreading of animal manure. Much of the focus of the latter has been on megafarms classified as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Climate change and invasive species don’t cause algae, but are believed to be major contributors because of how they exacerbate the problem.

The Everglades Foundation’s $10 million prize was announced in 2014, but is getting more attention now because of Lake Erie’s algal problems over the past two summers and the upcoming launch of a website for the contest.

The goal is to identify the most “cost-effective solution to remove phosphorus from water bodies” across the world, Ms. Rodriguez said.

The winning idea will have applicability throughout the world, foundation officials said.

Western Lake Erie’s most dominant form of algae, Microcystis, has been on the rise globally.

At a symposium sponsored by the National Science Foundation and held at Bowling Green State University in April, scientists learned that microcystis is especially bad in China’s Lake Taihu. Hans Paerl, a distinguished marine and environmental sciences professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told attendees it can bloom there for nine months at a time.

Austria, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, China, Japan, South Korea, and Uganda were identified as some of the algal hotspots outside of North America, though not all are necessarily because of Microcystis.

“We’re dealing with the root cause,” G. Melodie Naja, the foundation’s chief scientist, said. “This is basically phosphorus.”

The foundation’s contest website is scheduled to go live Oct. 5. Check in the coming weeks for details, including the Internet address, Ms. Rodriguez said.

She said the Everglades Foundation has already received requests for information from 140 potential applicants, many of them teams of university students and scholars. Inquiries have come from many parts of the world outside of North America, such as the Netherlands, Columbia, and Singapore, officials said.

The foundation has hired former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Sir Harold Kroto, a Florida State University chemist and co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, to lead the contest’s advisory council, which is expected to have up to 15 experts reviewing proposals. The foundation in June hired an Austin-based company, Verb, to manage the prize.

“We’re really trying to create a community of people to come around in a science-driven way,” according to Maurice Ferre, a member of the foundation’s board of directors and the founding president and chief executive officer of MAKO, a developer of innovative techniques for robotic orthopedic surgery. “The cost-effectiveness is important.”


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