Science Cafe

Alexis Ostrowski, Ph.D. spoke at the first Bowling Green State University Science Café. She presented her research on a new method of recycling phosphorus, a contributing chemical to the annual harmful algal blooms that pollute Lake Erie.

A new method of recycling phosphorus, a contributing chemical to the annual harmful algal blooms that pollute Lake Erie, was presented by professor Alexis Ostrowski, Ph.D. at the first Bowling Green State University Science Café on Saturday.

Ostrowski, a BGSU chemistry professor, shared her research on a Iron (III) photo-chemical reaction in seaweed models, which inspired the design of a new hydrogel material that can help reclaim phosphate from waste.

“As a scientist, I began to say ‘this is cool, but what can we use it for?’” said Ostrowski of the photo-chemical reaction. “It can grab the phosphate, suck it up from waste solutions that have phosphate in them, including liquid animal waste from the dairy farm we tested.”

Phosphorus from fertilizers and wastewater is a major contributor to the growth and formation of the cyanobacteria based harmful algal bloom which emits toxic chemicals into Lake Erie.

A percentage of the wastewater comes from lagoons formed to capture animal waste, like that of the dairy farm the BGSU group tested.

“What do you do with all this water? It’s primarily water, liquid water that has phosphate in it, typically farmers will spread it on their fields. That can be expensive to do and then the next day, if it rains, the phosphate can run into the watershed and make its way to Lake Erie,” Ostrowski said.

In addition to the damage created from the pollution, Ostrowski said that the phosphorus is a limited resource that will eventually be used up, but will still be needed to keep high farm yields.

Her research has shown that the reclaimed phosphorus leaves behind water that can still be used, but in testing on tomato plants the plants grown with fertilizer-loaded hydrogel beads were more productive than plants grown without fertilizer. Over a 109 day growth period, hydrogel bead recycled phosphorus fertilized plants produced three times as many tomatoes as unfertilized plants and 75% of what new phosphorus fertilized plants produced.

“This is really exciting for me. … We can potentially use them as a really value added product. In fact, to use them as a fertilizer. Maybe they don’t have to do as well as the fertilizer solution. This is from recycled waste,” said Ostrowski. “Recycling the phosphate is actually using this agricultural waste as a resource.”

She then talked to the group of 20, face-to-face attendees and 42 watching virtually, about ways they can get involved in the scientific research.

In addition to becoming students in either the graduate or undergraduate programs at BGSU, she suggested students become citizen scientists and researchers.

The Waterville Rotary group has taken an active role in water sampling at nutrient and mineral hot spots.

Audience members were interested in whether or not the hydrogel bead collection process had been used in the field, while another was interested in the feasibility.

She said that it had not been tested in the field and the current research was centered around lower the expenses associated with the process. The current raw material cost is about $0.30 per gallon, which she said was prohibitively expensive. She estimated that it needed to about 10% of that cost, but it was a cost-benefit analysis question.

“Farmers can’t afford to spend massive amounts of money,” Ostrowski said, referencing the current low price of milk.

Jessica Williams, a BGSU environmental science student in her third year, stayed after to ask Ostrowski for details on how she might get involved in work at the BGSU Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health.

“So this is right up my alley. We talk about the harmful algal bloom in all of my classes,” said Williams.

The BGSU Science Café presentation on Saturday was the first in a series of events to highlight work being done by BGSU researchers that impacts the quality of life in the region, state and the world.

It is based on a concept started in Great Britain, where scientists met with students, the public and each other, giving presentations and discussing concepts in a friendly and relaxed pub atmosphere.