Algae could help clear lake

Spill Response Expo blog post 1

Sandia National Laboratories is testing whether algae could be used to clear of one California’s biggest and most polluted lakes.

Salton Sea in Southern California has issues relating to elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff. Algae thrives on these elements - causing environmental problems but also potentially providing a solution to the problem.

Sandia is looking to utilise algae’s penchant for prolific growth to clear up the pollutants and stop harmful algae blooms; at the same time creating a renewable, domestic source of fuel - as a Sandia Labs-patented fermentation process can easily convert algae into fuels and chemicals.

America’s Department of Energy Bioenergy Technology Office is funding Sandia’s SABRE Project as it will determine whether or not algae is a viable part of the solution to the country’s need to discover diverse energy sources.

Ryan Davis, biochemist at Sandia, says the early results from the project are “really promising” and appear to be “superior to results from similar algae systems”.

Algae blooms have the potential to grow so large that they can become visible from outer space, as is true in Lake Okeechobee, Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. While these blooms are not toxic to fish directly, under certain conditions they can be harmful to both marine and human life.

When blooms die off and decay, this process can cause ‘dead’ zones in waterways - areas containing low oxygen that cause fish to suffocate. If eaten, certain species of harmful algae can cause flu symptoms in people and death in pets, according to congressional testimony.

Because Salton Sea is the accumulation point for all agricultural runoff water from one of the biggest farming areas in America, algae blooms are prevalent in this sea due to the nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements present in the deposited fertilisers.

These elements feed the algae blooms, with negative consequences that can impact across the ecosystem.

The SABRE Project could be a repeated model of remediation for algae blooms nationwide, if it proves to be successful.