South Florida Company Addressing Algal Blooms With Plastic Beads

Nov 5, 2018

A South Florida environmental technology company has a plan to fight the state's blue-green algae problems with microscopic plastic beads. 

Green Water Solution is one of four finalists for the George Barley Water Prize, a $10 million award started by the Everglades Foundation to address toxic algae blooms through new technologies. The prize is intended to fund a technology that can be used around the globe to reduce phosphorus contamination in water.

The CEO of the company, Frank Jochem, has been studying marine sciences and algal blooms for 25 years. He and the director of the George Barley Water Prize, Loren Parra, joined Sundial to talk about the technology.

WLRN: Why was Green Water Solution's technology ultimately chosen as one of the four finalists for this contest?

PARRA: So Frank along with his teammates and the three other finalists that were chosen actually participated in a 90-day pilot phase we hosted in Canada. Based on the data that we took from those 90 days ... we decided which final teams would actually move on to the Grand Challenge.

What was the impetus for this competition? Is it about the algal bloom or is it about the phosphorus?

Blue-green algae is a direct symptom of phosphorus pollution. You can try to address that symptom the way you can try to address a cough when you have the flu but you're really better off addressing that root cause and really addressing the infection or the bacteria giving you that sickness. So the excess phosphorus pollution is what we've asked Frank his teammates and the other finalists to address.

Frank, explain to us this idea, this use of microscopic beads. How is that going to work?

JOCHEM: Well in a very simple expression it acts like a magnet for phosphorus. So the water basically runs through these plastic beads. They are contained. They're not getting into the environment. The phosphorus in the water instantaneously absorbs into that plastic material like to a magnet. It's not a chemical reaction, it's just a physical absorption and it's very effective. The outflow usually is so low that no microbes and no algae can grow in that water.

Now the good thing about the technology is that eventually, like every magnet when it's saturated with what it absorbs, in this case the phosphorus, our technology can simply wash off the phosphorus with another solution, making those plastic beads reusable. We're not really removing the phosphorous from the waterways where it doesn't belong, we recapture the phosphorus in a concentrated form that is suitable for use in, for example, the fertilizer industry. We're taking the phosphorus form where ... it doesn't do good to where we need it later. We cannot have modern agriculture without phosphorus fertilizer. Yet, the projections show that by the end of the century all the phosphorus that we are able to mine will be exhausted. So we're addressing two points: preventing the algae bloom by [basically taking] the algae's food away and bringing the phosphorus back to where we desperately need it.