Southern Illinois University students and faculty work to find solutions to the problem of toxic algae blooms in an SIU laboratory.

Sunlight, nanoparticles, and magnets wipe out toxic algae

Rising temperatures are contributing to the increase in blue-green algae blooms, especially in Midwestern waterways. Students and faculty at Southern Illinois University received a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to advance a concept that combines sunlight and nanomaterials to combat algae blooms.

Human or animal contact with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, is harmful and can result in symptoms including rashes, gastrointestinal distress, pink eye, and breathing difficulty, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Southern Illinois University has restricted the use of a campus lake until an environmentally responsible solution to its algae bloom problem is identified. 

Enter the student scientists.

Air and water

The research team will use an aerial drone to monitor the lake’s water quality. They will also take water samples from the lake and use a gene-based method to determine the concentration of cyanobacteria during a bloom.

Iron-based nanoparticles, called magnetic photocatalysts, will mitigate the toxins in the algae. Photocatalysis is the process of using light to accelerate a chemical reaction. For this project, sunlight will be the light source for the reaction that will occur in the campus lake.

The nanoparticles will hold onto the toxins, which can then be extracted from the water. They can be easily removed with magnetic methods because the nanoparticles are iron-based. The nanoparticles will be recycled and the algae-free water will be put back into the lake.

Next steps

This project runs through November. The researchers hope to get another grant to expand the project and develop a floating system that carries a water treatment unit that can be used on the campus lake. If tests prove successful there, the innovation could be used in other communities across the country experiencing cyanobacteria challenges.

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