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Clean technology to tackle cyanotoxins

Cities around the world located on rivers or other waterbodies find themselves threatened by algal blooms. This is when algae population levels in aquatic environments increase to high levels ranging from hundreds to thousands of cells per millilitre, or even millions of cells...

Cities around the world located on rivers or other waterbodies find themselves threatened by algal blooms. This is when algae population levels in aquatic environments increase to high levels ranging from hundreds to thousands of cells per millilitre, or even millions of cells per millilitre. In some cases harmful algal blooms develop, resulting in toxic or otherwise harmful phytoplankton that threatens other organisms. A team of international research partners have joined forces 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, is based in Ireland at the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre (NIBEC), at the University of Ulster's Jordanstown campus, where clean technology is a key area of research. 'Clean Technology,' as Dr Byrne explains, '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.' The seriousness of the problem on a local scale in Ireland was highlighted during the summer when harmful algal blooms were spotted on Loughbrickland Lake close to Banbridge in County Down, and Moor Lough near Strabane, County Tyrone. Both lakes, which are popular with anglers and used for water-based recreation activities, had to be closed to members of the public for several weeks. Algal blooms occur naturally but do not necessarily pose a risk to either humans or animals. However, an increased supply of limiting nutrients in water due to pollution will increase the likelihood of harmful algal blooms. Dr Byrne clarifies: 'Blooms containing cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, can pose a serious threat, as these microorganisms 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 received funding as part of the United States-Ireland R&D Partnership initiative, and are collaborating with American experts. All researchers taking part 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. A Clean Technology degree was introduced by the School of Engineering at the Jordanstown campus in 2009, resulting in Ulster becoming the only university in the United Kingdom or Ireland to offer an engineering course dedicated to Clean Technology. The first intake of students will graduate next summer and Dr Byrne 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.'For more information, please visit: US-Ireland R&D Partnership:http://www.sfi.ie/funding/funding-calls/open-calls/us-ireland-rd-partnership-programme/ NIBEC - Ulster Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre: http://www.nibec.ulster.ac.uk/

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Ireland, United States