Solving pollution with more ‘pollution’

Pollution /pəˈluːʃ(ə)n/ – noun

“The introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change.  Pollution is often classed as point source or non-point source pollution”.

A couple of years ago we were introduced by a mutual friend to Simon Tannock PhD. Simon is a self-confessed nerd whose Masters thesis was on algae – specifically diatoms.  But he’s a great guy who really knows his stuff, and has spent his professional career solving scientific problems.

Diatoms are a type of algae. They have transparent cell walls made of silica, and they do photosynthesise. If you feel you want to brush up on you Diatom knowledge, follow this link for some more information.

Simon is now using his extensive knowledge of algae to bring a new product to the Australian market that is proving to be extremely effective in dealing with water pollution from algal blooms.

We know that this is a problem that creates significant costs and some sleepless nights for many of our clients – in agriculture, government and mining. We’ve seen problems such as:

  • Toxic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms that will harm or kill humans and animals
  • Algal growth in storages which block and damage equipment that cost lots of $$$ to maintain and repair
  • Algal blooms that prevent access to waterways and recreation areas.

4T likes to bring news of new techniques and products to our clients, so we asked Simon for permission to reproduce a post that he recently wrote about this new product.

Luckily, Simon agreed, and his post is reproduced below.

Diatoms are photosynthesising algae, they have a siliceous skeleton (frustule) and are found in almost every aquatic environment including fresh and marine waters, soils, in fact almost anywhere moist.   Source:  University College London

Simon’s article…

Pollution is a problem we are all familiar with. As the definition above outlines, pollution can be point source (for example, the person on the train, sharing their phone conversation with the whole carriage) or non-point source (a common one is eutrophication of a river, caused by many land-holders, causing algal blooms and sometimes fish-kills).  One is easier to fix than the other!Every summer there are many stories about rivers and lakes that are closed due to a toxic algal bloom.  The biggest impact on our lives is when drinking water storages are affected.  Less dangerous to our health, but with big impacts to our collective pockets, are the closures of recreational areas.  In Australia there are some names that get mentioned more often than others with this problem: Lake TuggeranongLake Burley GriffinTorrens LakeBorumba Dam, and the list goes on across Australia, New Zealand and throughout the world.  Businesses in these communities lose valuable tourist dollars and local foot traffic when these lakes and dams become a hazard, they can be an unpleasant sight and have an awful smell.  You can’t fish, you can’t swim and you could get sick, there have also been reports of dog deaths.These issues are most often caused in the beginning by pollution.  Many authorities say these blooms are natural phenomena, but without the phosphorus and nitrogen in the water, from non-point source pollution, the algae and blue-green algae would have little to grow on (nerd fact check – blue-green algae are actually cyanobacteria).  It seems non-point source pollution is too hard to control and stop as it has been happening for decades and to date no viable solution has been utilised.

So is more ‘pollution’ the answer?

From the definition at the top, pollution causes adverse change.  This is why my suggestion is ‘pollution’.  By this I mean the introduction of something new, but that is not really a contaminant and it does not come with the adverse effects.

When algae grow they need a mix of macro-nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as a proportional amount of micro-nutrients, e.g. iron, magnesium, copper, manganese and some others. When nitrogen and phosphorus enter rivers and lakes at polluting levels, they very rarely come along  with the right proportion of micro-nutrients. This proportion is called the Redfield ratio, and when it is wrong then the natural balance is skewed and only some algae or cyanobacteria can still grow well and this is when the problems start.

Of course, if you are going to add micro-nutrients you really want to be able to target only the good algae.  You don’t want the toxic algae getting the micronutrients so they can bloom even more! Bad, bad idea.  But there are some algae, ones called diatoms, which are at the base of the food chain.  When diatoms grow well they get eaten by the millions of microscopic animals in the water.  And then those animals get eaten by larger animals (fish) which in turn get eaten by larger predators (birds etc).  So the nitrogen and phosphorus in the water becomes diatoms, and then zooplankton, and then small fish, then big fish, birds and eels.

Just the good guys grow

At NualgiEnviro we have been using our solution with some of the big Australian Utility companies, and prawn farmers.  We have boosted diatom growth, made the water clearer and millions of ‘water insects’ eat the diatoms and zooplankton as fast as they can.  We have also seen really large reductions in the concentration of blue-green algae, the cyanobacteria. We add the micronutrients to the water, but with some clever nano-technology on our side, we make sure that only diatom algae get the benefit of our micro-nutrients. The diatoms can now outgrow other algae; they can now use more nitrogen and phosphorus and leave the problem algae without a food source.

Is reducing or solving the problem worth it? It depends: How much does the community lose? How many hours of fishing, boating and swimming are lost? How do you put a dollar value on that? How many tourist dollars are lost when a tourist attraction, like the Borumba Dam closes over Australia Day weekend? Or any other weekend? How many dollars do businesses lose when the local residents don’t come to the waterside cafes for breakfast and coffee?  The costs to the local community can’t easily be accounted for but they are real.  History shows us that that the solutions on offer are simply not working.

By correcting the imbalance of too much pollution, with a little ‘pollution’ and then letting nature do what it does best seems to me to be a great path forward.  Converting nitrogen and phosphorus in our waterways into fish and birds and turtles is a great outcome. Tourists pay to see healthy water and wonderful wildlife in our National Parks.  Creating healthy water and attracting tourists into our communities is an outcome worth our while.