Finding the good in algal blooms
Focusing on the benefits
Dr Rita Henderson has spent years studying how to treat algae and toxic cyanobacteria blooms in drinking water supplies. But she’s hoping that UNSW’s new bioMASS laboratory will further the research into its potential benefits.
“I’m trying to move away from primarily looking at cyanobacteria and microalgae as a problem,” she says. “Algae can be a very good energy source for example. And because they absorb nutrients so well, they can also be used to treat wastewater.”
New bioMASS Laboratory
bioMASS stands for Microbial Advanced Separation Systems. Set up early in 2014, the laboratory is unusual, Rita says, in that it is studying microbiology in a chemical engineering context. “We are using microbial techniques that are more usually available in a biology lab, and applying them to help us optimise chemical engineering processes that are used to separate microbial systems, such as filtration with membranes and flotation, etc. Flotation is when you create micro bubbles and contact these with the microorganism to float them out. Algae are so light that it’s easier than using sedimentation techniques.”
Rita just launched the bioMASS Lab website in order to promote some of the work that the laboratory is doing, and to encourage more PhD students to join the team. “I’ve had some interested students since it went up,” she says. Currently the laboratory has one post-doctoral student (soon to be two) and four PhD students but, Rita says, “there are plans to further build the team”.
Using facilities in the School of Chemical Engineering, the laboratory has a range of equipment, including a dissolved air flotation bench tester, a light incubator, Velp Scientifica FC4S Flocculator, Mastersizer 3000 and BD Accuri C6 Flow Cytometer.
Rita says one of the biggest projects this year is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage grant to optimise drinking water monitoring. “Some of the work I’ve previously been involved in has been using fluorescent spectrometry to tell the difference between recycled water used for irrigation and straight drinking water,” she says. “Now we’re using the same technology to monitor cyanobacteria and algae separation processes. The bulk of our research is industry funded, with industry bodies such as water utilities.”