University of Ulster scientists are collaborating with international research partners to develop a new ‘clean’ technology to destroy water toxins caused by harmful algal blooms.
The research team, led by Dr Tony Byrne and includes Dr Patrick Dunlop and Dr Jeremy Hamilton, is based at NIBEC, Ulster’s Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre at the Jordanstown campus.
“The increase of harmful algal blooms in estuaries and freshwater aquatic systems around the world is a major global problem because of the serious threat they pose to wildlife, livestock and humans,” Byrne said.
Algal blooms occur naturally but not all pose a risk to humans or animals. However, an increased supply of limiting nutrients in water due to pollution will increase the likelihood of harmful algal blooms.
“Blooms containing cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, can pose a serious threat, as these micro-organisms can produce and release a variety of cyanotoxins. These toxins include hepatotoxins, dermatotoxins, and neurotoxins with extremely high toxicity,” Byrne said.
“Titanium dioxide is a white powder which is used in sunblock, paint, cosmetics and even some food products (E171). It is a non-toxic pigment but when excited by ultra violet light (UV), it becomes a powerful catalyst capable of destroying pollutants in water.
“This process is called photocatalysis and our challenge is to increase the solar efficiency because sunlight contains only a small proportion of UV. We have already demonstrated the destruction of the cyanotoxins under laboratory conditions using new catalysts under solar light but we need to fully understand the mechanism.”
Harmful algal blooms have threatened beaches, drinking water sources, and even water based activities around the boating venue for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. They appear to be increasing along the coastlines and in the surface waters of the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). HSB epidemiologists have led a number of studies to investigate the public health impacts of blue-green algae blooms and Florida red tide. The studies have demonstrated that there is the potential for exposure to potent HAB-related toxins during recreational and occupational activities on water bodies with ongoing blooms.
Source: University of Ulster