Scientists want to turn harmful algal blooms (green, along coastline) into biofuels and fertilizers. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, NASA GSFC

Scientists want to turn harmful algal blooms (green, along coastline) into biofuels and fertilizers. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, NASA GSFC

Amulti-pronged nutrient bio-remediation system is the goal of a team of scientists who will present their research this week for cleaning up algae blooms in critical waterways and turning them into useful products. Their work will be discussed at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“I grew up on a farm, and I know firsthand the needs of small-scale farmers, as well as the problems posed by algal blooms,” says John B. Miller, Ph.D. “But I am also a chemist, so I see an upside with algae.”

Miller and his team at Western Michigan University envision a solution to problematic algal blooms, which can also benefit small-scale farmers. Large-scale, centralized “algal turf scrubber” operations in Florida and elsewhere are getting underway and are growing natural communities of periphytic or attached algae for biofuel production. Miller is building on this approach but will downsize it to water bodies near small farms throughout the U.S.

“For small farm applications, the system must be easy to operate, nearly automatic and be suitable for diffuse installations,” he says. “So, my focus has been to apply this technology without requiring the large infrastructure of the electric grid, large pumping installations and all the rest that is needed for centralized operations. A farmer won’t have time to check an algae collection and processing system, so it has to also be able to operate remotely.”

Currently, the team is exploring different substrates to optimize algae growth in water bodies. By using 3-D printing technologies, the researchers engineer substrates to provide different geometric features that foster growth of algal blooms. They are testing these first in the laboratory before analyzing them out in the field. Also, they are investigating different options for collection techniques that will be more appropriate for small, remote locations.

It may take a while to get the system up and running at farms, but Miller says that there is a powerful economic incentive for farmers to sign on. That’s because it has the potential to shift problematic algae into biofuels and other applications, taking a farm-based ecological problem and turning it into a revenue stream for small-scale farmers.

Miller acknowledges funding from the Department of Energy, the Smithsonian Institution, Western Michigan University and StatoilHydro.