NAA workshop: What’s the best way to rid America of toxic algae?

[USA] Growing anxiety over America’s toxic algae problem has spurred a niche industry of entrepreneurial businesses focused on control technologies, several of which are being represented at a national workshop on the University of Toledo campus this week.

The two-day event inside UT’s Nitschke Auditorium/Brady Center ends Wednesday. It is organized by the Texas-based National Algae Association, a group that promotes both the development of so-called “good algae” for consumer goods and removal of so-called “bad algae” for public health.

Algae often gets a bad name in this part of the country because of western Lake Erie’s near-annual outbreaks of a toxic variety since 1995, the most notorious being when poisoned tap water was distributed to nearly 500,000 Toledo-area residents the first weekend of August, 2014.

For years, entrepreneurs have been developing ways of harnessing the lesser-known good algae, which is sometimes grown in a lab for consumer items such as cosmetics, food, beverage mixes, feeds, fertilizers, pigments, plastics, and fuels.

The flip side has been the potentially dangerous forms of algae, such as those which threaten water supplies here and other parts of the world — especially as Earth’s climate warms and changing land uses allow more nutrients to feed them.

Toxic algae really is only algae by name. It’s technically a form of bacteria known as cyanobacteria, aka “blue-green algae.” The toxic forms are classified as harmful algal blooms, or HABs.

Microcystis, western Lake Erie’s most dominant HAB, puts out a toxin that’s one of the worst poisons found in nature. That toxin, known as microcystin, attacks the liver and can kill or at least sicken people and their pets, and cause neurological problems.

Growing concerns over HABs have led to emerging control technologies, opening doors for all kinds of entrepreneurial efforts.

Barry Cohen, National Algae Association executive director, said his group serves a growing demand for collaboration among private businesses and their scientists.

He said it takes a “holistic” approach by including private entrepreneurs, which he calls “Algaepreneurs.” They’re important to include in discussions, he said, because “research, testing, and monitoring has not fixed the problem for 75 years.”

The National Algae Association now hosts two-day workshops like the one at UT every 90 days in a different part of the country, which he agreed is a sign of how national the algae problem has become.

“We’re not pointing fingers,” Mr. Cohen told The Blade. “We love farmers. We want agriculture to be involved.”

The group said on its website it sees a potential $3 trillion market for remediation technologies, one that overshadows the projected $3.4 billion market for algae-based consumer products.

“This is a brand new industry that could be a trillion-dollar market to clean up all of these lakes,” Mr. Cohen said.

During the first day of the workshop on Tuesday, presentations were made by companies at various stages of developing anything from ionizer machines to ultrasound devices for zapping bad algae cells.

The research is occurring all over the country and includes studies into the effectiveness of using healthy forms of bacteria to kill cyanobacteria and pollutants such as cancer-causing PCBs.

UT Lake Erie Center Director Tom Bridgeman was among the first presenters, giving the approximately 30 attendees an overview of how the 2014 water crisis occurred and efforts that have been made to prevent a repeat.

Alex McCartney, a graduate student working in UT medical microbiologist Jason Huntley’s lab, said in his presentation that its work with microcystin-degrading bacteria appears promising.

Fred Lubnow, Princeton Hydro aquatic programs director, said this summer was a rough one for mid-Atlantic states.

“We had a pretty nasty year for New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, especially in June,” he said.



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