Israeli Scientists Working to Cure Lakes Struck ‘Blue-Green’ by Toxic Algae
In millions of lakes around the world, the warmer months spell more than summer fun. Rising temperatures and more sunlight, coupled with a buildup of nutrients from fertilizers and pollution, create the perfect incubator for slimy, smelly, and harmful blue-green algae.
Although algae produce most of the oxygen we breathe and provides food for fish and other animals, they can bloom in excess, producing toxic compounds that can contaminate drinking water, make humans and wildlife sick, damage the environment and kill fish.
Two brothers behind an Israeli company — founded in 2018 to commercialize their fix for harmful algae blooms — are now finding successes in what seemed an impossible task.
“We are in uncharted waters, literally: we are making money out of lakes. No one has ever done that. We are the first company in the world that has cracked this field of treating large bodies of water, which is lakes and oceans,” Eyal Harel, the CEO of BlueGreen Water Technologies, told The Algemeiner.
BlueGreen Technologies has developed two treatments designed to eliminate cyanobacterial toxic blooms, leaving no trace in the water. The company claims these treatments can be applied to any body of water, and that the results can be seen in a matter of hours.
“Under conditions of global warming, with the temperature of water rising you get the perfect conditions for bacterial infection, so what we are dealing with is actually a bacterial infection of water,” said Harel, who founded the company with his brother Moshe. “When you don’t treat an infection, it will continue growing and growing until it reaches catastrophic proportions, where water becomes of what is known in the jargon as a dead aquatic zone, meaning they create too hostile conditions in the water for other life to exist.”
The spread of toxic algal blooms creates a thick mat on the upper layers of the water. As a result, no sound can penetrate, oxygen levels drop and other living organisms simply can’t survive — often turning an environmental catastrophe into an economic and even political one, too, according to Harel.
There are roughly 60 million lakes around the world infected by cyanobacteria, and over 11 million square miles of ocean water considered dead aquatic zones.
Existing chemical treatments for toxic algae outbreaks — primarily copper and hydrogen peroxide — are limited to small water reservoirs and ponds and are too heavy, sinking quickly; as a result, much of the bloom on the surface of the water remains. This leads to the use of still more chemicals, which is more cost-intensive and damages the water ecosystem.
“Here are chemicals that are effective algaecides, but they don’t do the trick in large bodies of water because of their physical properties. Using satellite imagery, we were able to see bacteria with the naked eye and that it moves with the currents and the wind, and that it is not concentrated in one place,” Harel recalled. “To solve the problem, we changed the physical properties of the chemical compounds to turn them into a lighter substance and make them float.”
BlueGreen’s Lake Guard Oxy is a white powder that can be dusted manually from the shore, a boat or from the air, showing results within 24 to 48 hours, the company claims.
“We used very small quantities of chemical to activate a biological chain reaction within the target species, causing them to naturally undergo a collective suicide,” Harel explained. “The moment we put the product in the water, we saw an immediate response, we saw the green contaminated water turning into brown — you can’t mistake that.”
Barry H. Rosen, professor at the Water School of the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) argued that such a method risks harming algae beyond the cyanobacteria targeted.
“Outside the area of application, there is a pool of organisms ready to move back in and repopulate the area. They can take advantage of nutrients released from dead cells. If it is a return of the same cyano, the product does not remove the nutrients, which is the key cause of these blooms,” Rosen remarked, adding that confined areas, such as canals and boat docks, would be better application sites than larger lakes.
He also suggested that more research was needed to investigate what conditions allow for regrowth, and whether the timing of a potential bloom can be delayed or prevented from reoccurring.
After BlueGreen’s trials in Israel, the company developed a satellite-based remote-sensing capacity that can detect and analyze algal outbreaks in near-real time.
But on the road to development and commercialization, the water tech company experienced difficulties in raising money from conventional investors.
“On multiple occasions we were almost broke, but we had what I fondly like to call a blue green army of volunteers who helped along the way and believed that our cause was life-changing,” Harel said. “Multiple times a week we would go to lakes that are completely contaminated with a toxic bacteria, and within 24 to 48 hours, the lakes are clear. What a better reward are you going to get than that?”
In 2020, BlueGreen had its biggest break with major projects in the US and China after completing its first international treatment of the 330-acre Chippewa Lake, the largest inland natural lake in Ohio, in August 2019. The treatment broke five years of high toxicity levels in the lake, which has since remained free of toxic algae, according to the water tech company.
In October last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called on BlueGreen for emergency deployments, to stop cyanobacteria buildup in Lake Okeechobee through the C-44, a 21-mile-long canal. The company also treated China’s Nanhu Lake to fix the spread of toxic algae blooms as well as the Roodeplaat Dam reservoir near Pretoria, South Africa.
Earlier this month, BlueGreen was named the “2021 Breakthrough” tech company of the year by Global Water Intelligence (GWI) for its “most impressive commercial” breakthrough into the global water technology market and for its “groundbreaking” solution to treat cyanobacteria blooms in bodies of water.
“In our case, the secret for success was that we saw that the treatment worked again and again. It was like magic,” Harel said. “When you have a problem that is that acute, that makes animals die, makes people die and get sick, all over the world, all the time, and it’s only getting worse, and we can solve that problem — that’s one hell of a motivation.”