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A group of graduate students from UWindsor researcher Bulent Mutus’ lab working with the biofilter, a filter that can remove potentially harmful phosphates from contaminated water. A group of graduate students from UWindsor researcher Bulent Mutus’ lab working with the biofilter, a filter that can remove potentially harmful phosphates from contaminated water.

UWindsor making strides in protecting waterways from toxic algae blooms

UWindsor researcher Bulent Mutus has designed and built a filter that can remove potentially harmful phosphates from contaminated water. Phosphates are a naturally occurring mineral, but increased levels in waterways, will substantially reduce water quality.

Phosphates are found in sewage and used in detergents and commercial fertilizers, so runoff from these practices and industries, will throw off the chemical balance of streams, rivers and the lakes. An abundance of phosphates create a nutrient rich environment that can encourage massive growth of some plants and algae.

Mutus’ research project, Large Scale Total Phosphate Filtration System, received almost $160,000 from Environment Canada, Lake Simcoe Georgian Bay Clean-Up Fund (LSGBCUF), for a two-year project to build and test a large scale version of the filtration unit at the Holland Canal in the Holland Marsh, near Barrie Ontario.

“Our filtration technology is a simple and cost effective alternative to current methods,” says Dr. Mutus, biochemistry professor. “It uses inexpensive, environmentally safe methods to remove phosphorus from point sources such as municipal and agricultural wastewater.”

The biggest current concern is with toxic blue green algae blooms forming in Lake Simcoe, Georgian Bay region and the Great Lakes. The algae, or cyanobacteria, release toxic microcystins, which can be dangerous if ingested and can irritate the liver, skin, eyes and throat.

In 2014, Toledo, Ohio citizens relied on bottled water for one weekend, after the toxin tainted their public water supply. Toledo is just 100 kilometers south of Windsor, and blooms are showing up again this summer.

Mutus created a filtration unit that uses chitosan, which is obtained from chemical processing of shrimp and crab shells. Iron is chemically bound to the chitosan, so as contaminated water runs through the filter, the phosphate binds to the iron, allowing clean water to emerge.

“In the current study, UWindsor’s machine shop manufactured the 50 gallon tanks that contain the biofilters and electronics to control flow and sampling,” says Mutus. “The automated unit works continuously with solar powered pumps that power water sensors and valves.”

Mutus’ Environment Canada-LSBGCUF project will scale up the biofiltration system with aim of cutting phosphate levels in the Holland Canal, which accumulate phosphates from municipal and agricultural sources in the vicinity of the Holland Marsh. 

“This is the salad bowl of Toronto, you can smell the onions as you drive up the highway,” says Mutus. “These farms sit on exceptionally productive soil and grow high value vegetables, like beets, carrots and onions and they are diversifying to include herbs.”

Looking at aerial shots of the Lake Simcoe watershed, duckweed growth is abundant. Mutus says duckweed is a red flag that phosphate levels are rising, with the next concern being the possibility of toxic algae blooms.

In addition to tainting the water supply, blooms can decrease oxygen levels, and this has the potential to fatally starve fish and aquatic wildlife of oxygen.

“This grant allowed us carry out a large scale project and we are proposing to remove at least 300 kg of phosphate per year,” says Mutus. “And this problem is in Lake Erie too, so whatever we develop and successfully test in Lake Simcoe, can easily be applied to remediate the Lake Erie basin.”

In addition to chitosan filters, Mutus plans to try red sand. The red sand naturally contains iron, which will bind with the phosphate to remove it from water.

The study starts in October, 2015.