University of Idaho

MOSCOW - A University of Idaho research team will test new technologies to help control harmful algae blooms by removing their most common cause from lakes and streams from coast to coast.

A $1 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant will allow U of I researchers Greg Moller, Dan Strawn and Martin Baker to test their Clean Water Machine from Florida to Oregon.

The team will trial new water treatment methods including one that employs biochar, or microscopic charcoal, to capture phosphorus. The month-long tests focus on Florida’s St. Johns River and Oregon’s Klamath Basin.

Common products from detergents to fertilizer contain phosphorus, which is common in wastewater and runoff from farms and cities. A critical plant nutrient, phosphorus causes harmful algae blooms that plague Lake Erie, Florida’s coasts and waters worldwide.

Idaho water bodies that have had problems include: Brownlee, Hells Canyon, Cedar Creek, Thorn Creek, Mormon and C.J. Strike reservoirs, Fernan Lake, Silver Lake, Lake Lowell and Lake Cocolalla.

Moller’s original invention is now used in about 140 wastewater treatment plants, mostly across North America. It takes a high-tech approach but uses simple materials including rust, sand, air and electricity to remove and capture phosphorus for use as fertilizer.

The idea is to mimic how nature cleans water, Moller said. “Baleen whales strain massive amounts of water through filters in their mouths to capture their food. We think our approach will act similarly on phosphorus at the molecular level.”

The three-year project will also allow up-close field work to assess the impact of a phosphorus-removal technology now used in municipal water reclamation plants in Alabama, Massachusetts and Minnesota invented by Moller.

Moller’s original process leads the marketplace for ultra-low phosphorus and mercury removal across North America. Wastewater plants in the United Kingdom and South Korea also draw on his discoveries. Two new billion-dollar, next generation power plants in Michigan and Ohio use this clean water technology to help provide electricity to 2 million homes.

The process can remove phosphorus from cities’ wastewater directly and streams and lakes affected by agricultural or municipal discharges.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to visit and assess how our technology is working in actual municipal water reclamation plants across the nation,” Moller said. “We will be able to better understand the equipment’s lifecycle and ways we can improve its efficiency.”

Moller’s Blue PRO system was developed at and patented by the University of Idaho. The technology is licensed to Nexom, which has installed the water treatment equipment the U of I team will explore in Citronelle, Alabama; Marlborough, Massachusetts; and International Falls, Minnesota.

Moller, Strawn and Baker conducted tests at an agricultural drain and at food processing plants in southern Idaho in 2019.

Baker and Moller tested the equipment at a marsh near Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada, as part of a $10 million prize competition overseen by The Everglades Foundation in 2018. The U of I team advanced to the final four, but the competition was suspended.

“Our innovations show we can make substantial progress in controlling these toxic algae blooms,” Moller said. “We are excited to accelerate new discoveries that may help solve a global water challenge.”