BUFFALO, N.Y. – David Blersch hates to vacuum.
Yet there he was on the edge of Lake Erie, about 35 miles
upriver of Niagara Falls, cheerfully assembling an industrial
vacuum on a recent July morning.
There is an explanation for this incongruity: It involves algae,
the slimy organism blamed for fish kills, beach closures and other
maladies that harm the Great Lakes and other waterways.
Funded by a $30,000 grant from the New York State Pollution
Prevention Institute, Blersch, an environmental engineer at the
University at Buffalo, and his students built a system that pumps
water ashore down two, 40-foot-long flumes.
The water is recycled into the lake but it leaves behind
microscopic cells that form miniature algae blooms. Blersch vacuums
the algae and bottles samples to study. He is creating a database
that will help scientists, government, industry and others gauge
the algae’s potential uses.
“One element of the project is pollution recovery. By
using the algae beds to remove excess nutrients from the lake, we
can improve water quality,” says Blersch, PhD, research
assistant professor in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied
Sciences. “The other aspect is studying its properties; is it
viable to turn algae into biofuels, fertilizer or other commercial
Of the many species of algae in the Great Lakes, most are not
inherently harmful. Algae form the base of the food web and are
part of the ecological community that all fish, at some part of
their life cycle, depend on for nourishment or habitat.
But some algae, such as the blue-green variety called
cyanobacteria that form large blooms in Lake Erie, release toxins
and other noxious chemicals that can sicken people and kill pets
and wildlife. Algae in excess also help form oxygen-starved zones
in the lake’s center that can kill fish.
That’s why algae blooms are considered a serious threat to
the Great Lakes and its tourism industry.
A problem in the Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades and other
ecologically important bodies of water, algae blooms are the result
of warm temperatures, lots of light and an abundance of such
nutrients as nitrogen and phosphorus. The excess nutrients
typically come from fertilizer, manure and sewage that rains wash
into the watershed.
In addition to UB, other academic institutions and industry are
addressing the matter. For example, Exxon Mobil Corp. reports
investing $100 million since 2009 to develop algae biofuels. It
recently announced more research is required to make the product
Turning Great Lakes algae into biofuels, fertilizer or other
products may become a reality someday, but for now Blersch is
concentrating on improving water quality in Buffalo and beyond.
A pilot project, Blersch’s research is based at SUNY
Buffalo State’s Great Lakes Center, a research institute
independent of UB.
“I usually hate to vacuum,” he said jokingly as he
sucked algae from the flume into the vacuum. “Around the
house, I normally do the dishes. It’s similar — dealing
with slimy stuff.”
Noting that the system is made almost entirely of parts
available at hardware stores, Blersch hopes to build other, perhaps
larger, systems and deploy them elsewhere in Buffalo. Potential
spots include Hoyt Lake in Delaware Park, the Buffalo River and
other waterways with excessive algae and low amounts of oxygen.
Several UB students, including Peter Byrley who graduated in May
with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering, are
participating in the research. Byrley will manage the project when
Blersch is away this summer.
“This research is really a unique opportunity to examine
issues that delve into sustainable bioenergy and how we can use
innovative technology to improve our waterways,” said Byrley,
who this fall will attend the University of California, Riverside,
on a full scholarship to pursue a doctoral degree in chemical and
Recently, he and Blersch have been joined by Buffalo high school
students working with Groundwork Buffalo, a nonprofit organization
whose mission is to build sustainable urban environments.
The students will help the UB engineers gather algae this
summer, said Andre McKnight, Groundwork’s executive director
in Buffalo. McKnight earned a master’s degree of urban
planning from UB in 2011.
Blersch is hopeful their participation will illustrate that
citizens can play a role in helping to improve the environment.
“There is plenty of algae out there,” he said
gesturing toward the Niagara River. “We just haven’t,
up until now, been able to harvest it very easily.”