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, which is 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 where clean technology is a key research theme.
Dr Byrne explains: “Clean Technology is a term used to describe knowledge-based products or services that improve operational performance, productivity or efficiency, while reducing costs, inputs, energy consumption, waste or pollution.
“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,” he said.
The seriousness of the problem on a local scale was highlighted this summer when harmful algal blooms were spotted on Loughbrickland Lake close to Banbridge in Co Down, and Moor Lough near Strabane, Co Tyrone. Both lakes, which are popular with anglers and used for water based recreation activities, were closed to members of the public for several weeks.
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.
Dr Tony Byrne continues: “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.
“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.”
The Ulster researchers are funded by the Department for Employment and Learning under the US-Ireland R&D Partnership initiative involving Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, and the USA. They are collaborating with experts in the USA: Professor Dion Dionysiou from the University of Cincinnati and Professor Kevin O’Shea from Florida International University, funded by the National Science Foundation (USA). Dr Suresh Pillai is the main collaborator from the CREST Centre, Dublin Institute of Technology. He is funded by Science Foundation Ireland. This research project also delivers the objectives of the cross boarder collaboration initiative, EHSI (Environmental Health Sciences Institute) involving strategic partnerships with the University of Ulster and Dublin Institute of Technology.
The collaborators are involved in a number of other research projects exploring the use of other advanced oxidation processes for the removal of cyanotoxins from water sources.
Dr Byrne is course director for the BEng (Hons) degree in Clean Technology. When the course was introduced by the School of Engineering at the Jordanstown campus in 2009 Ulster became the only university in the UK or Ireland to offer an engineering course dedicated to Clean Technology.
The first intake of students will graduate next summer and Dr Byrne said he is optimistic about the growing employment opportunities in the Clean Technology sector.
“Clean Technology or ‘Cleantech’ is attracting billions of dollars of investment and carries the hopes of a low-polluting and sustainable future. There are excellent job prospects opening up for graduates who can contribute to this growing multi-billion dollar industry sector.
“Global issues such as energy supply, environmental pollution and access to clean water demand innovative solutions and our research is contributing to these technological advances which create opportunities for increased economic growth,” said Dr Byrne.