On a morning in November 2017, while the residents of Lakeland, Florida, headed off to work, a small team of engineers parked what looked like an enormous lava lamp on the banks of Lake Bonnet. The ten-by-eight-foot water tank sat on a trailer fitted with a generator-powered pump. As the trailer gurgled to life, a hose pumped a swirling stream of green, algae-choked water into the tank.
Like many Florida waters, Lake Bonnet had become overrun with plant slime. In fact, all 50 states and many countries worldwide are struggling with epidemic levels of algae that can prove toxic to people and ecosystems. “Red tides” of algae along Florida’s Gulf Coast have killed tons of fish and marine mammals. Chinese lakes have turned into electric-green sludge. Beaches in Southern California are also experiencing explosions of algae and its related toxins: domoic acid and microsystin are among the algae-produced poisons that can kill off wildlife and cause illness in humans. Gulping it, swimming in it, or inhaling it (via sea mist) causes vomiting and diarrhea; extended contact can lead to cancer and liver failure. In Florida, lifeguards have reported higher incidence of respiratory illness, and many marina workers have taken to wearing air masks.
Battling the algae hasn’t been easy or practical, but at Lake Bonnet, engineers from a multinational firm called Aecom tested a brand-new technology that they think just might offer a solution to the global algae crisis. The water tank filters algae from water and then turns it into plastic foam like the kind used by footwear companies to make billions of pairs of shoes each year.
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