It is impossible to talk about agriculture without discussing water. Agriculture is the largest water using sector and unfortunately in some cases, a major polluter of water systems through fertilizer runoff from fields. Moleaer is on a mission to unlock the potential of nanobubbles to protect water, food, and natural resources. The company is tackling fertilizer runoff and the impacts on water quality with two different applications of their nanobubble technology.
The Rundown on Runoff
Because it is very difficult for farmers to determine the exact amount of nutrients a field requires, artificial fertilizers are often applied in excess of what crops need to grow. The rate that farmers in the US are using nitrogen fertilizer today is more than 40 times higher than it was three-quarters of a century ago, far outstripping population growth. Excess nutrients are then carried in runoff from farmland into streams, lakes and the ocean during storm events. These nutrients cause algae in the water to bloom much faster than it would under normal conditions. As a result, bacteria populations that feed on algae thrive and deplete oxygen in the water to critically low levels. This process of eutrophication results in mass die off events of fish and other aquatic organisms.
In a 2015 paper, researchers calculated that each kilogram of nitrogen used in the U.S. costs $16.10 for aggravating conditions that cause toxic algal blooms in waterways. These toxic blooms can also lead to the contamination of drinking water supplies, such as in 2014 when officials in Toledo, Ohio, warned roughly 500,000 customers not to drink or come in contact with the city’s tap water for three days. It is no wonder the EPA has called eutrophication “one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.” New research also suggests that climate change will substantially increase this form of pollution, leading to more devastating algae blooms and dead zones in bodies of water in the US.
But sometimes the answers to massive problems are pretty small--nano sized in fact. Moleaer’s nanobubble technology provides a chemical-free and cost-effective solution to increasing sustainable food production while restoring aquatic ecosystems. Nanobubbles are tiny bubbles–2,500 times smaller than a single grain of table salt–which means they are not large enough to float to the surface of the water. Nanobubble generators work by diffusing gas, most often air or oxygen, into water which spreads and dissolves bubbles giving them a transfer efficiency rate of about 85 percent or 30 times the rate of traditional aerators.
Bubbles this size can remain suspended in water for long periods, enabling highly efficient oxygen transfer and supersaturation of dissolved gas in liquids. One of the numerous applications of this technology is tackling nutrient runoff and algae blooms in two separate pathways: By adding dissolved oxygen to bodies of water that are prone to or already suffering from algae blooms, and by reducing the amount of fertilizer that runs off from fields in the first place.
Fighting Algae in Florida
Many bodies of water in the US fall victim to harmful algae blooms such as the notorious Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” One of the most drastic instances of recurring algae blooms occurs in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake in the lower 48. For two decades Florida has struggled to control the blue-green algae that periodically carpets Lake Okeechobee. In 2018 an algal bloom covered 90 percent of the lake, forcing Governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in seven counties. This year nearly two-thirds of the lake, or 500 square miles, were covered with blue green algae. The nutrient runoff also creates a noxious algal goop that is repulsive to tourists and toxic to humans.
The state has passed laws and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water treatment projects to reduce nutrients flowing into the lake, but the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee is about the same as it was in 2001when the state ordered a 70 percent reduction by 2015. Agricultural runoff is the source of over three quarters of the phosphorus in the lake.
Many experts say tougher monitoring and regulation of agricultural runoff is necessary but the agricultural industry has been resistant. Rising temperatures associated with climate change will likely exacerbate the problem because algae thrive in heat. The algae blooms have become an incredibly complex and divisive disaster, pitting farmers against environmental groups and the tourism sector who accuse farmers of irresponsibly managing fertilizer applications.
But nanobubbles might provide a desperately needed solution. Nanobubbles deliver oxygen to the entire body of water, which helps mitigate algae growth by reducing the nutrient recycling rate from the sediment. Because of their size and their ability to remain suspended in the water column for months, nanobubbles provide a mild oxidative effect that mitigates and helps control the proliferation of harmful algae, biofilms, and pathogens. The oxidative effect, which is typically only achieved with the use of harsh chemicals, is caused when nanobubbles collapse and release hydroxyl radicals and other reactive oxygen species which reduces contaminants.
In September of 2021 Moleaer announced a research collaboration with The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University, the leading university on harmful algal blooms, to study the impact of nanobubble technology on reducing algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee. Moleaer has installed clearTM nanobubble generators in the Pahokee Marina which was chosen because it is considered a microcosm of Lake Okeechobee and is prone to major algal blooms including two this year. The marina suffered from algae outbreaks this past spring and into summer with an outbreak in April that showed microcystin (a class of toxins produced by certain freshwater cyanobacteria) levels 100 times higher than what is considered harmful to humans. At the time septic-tank vacuums were deployed to suck up spongy cakes of toxic algae until the South Florida Water Management District was able to use a state contract with a dredging company for alcohol removal services.
“The installation at Pahokee Marina in Lake Okeechobee will help us demonstrate that nanobubble generators are an effective tool in the effort to combat harmful algae blooms (HABs),” says Christian Ference, an engineer at Moleaer working on the project. “A natural alternative to traditional chemical treatments, nanobubbles combat HABs by providing a mild oxidation and can aid in improving lake health and resiliency.”
While formal results from this study are still forthcoming, there is currently no algae in the marina and manatees have been spotted which is a positive sign of ecosystem health. The expectation is that the nanobubbles will not only quell Pahokee Marina’s persistent algae blooms but will help the company gain critical information such as how to size units to scale-up treatment to larger water bodies, what outside environmental influencers exist, and how to develop better designs in the future.
The Proof is in the Fertilizer
In addition to reducing the negative impacts of runoff on water bodies, Moleaer is helping stem the flow of nutrient runoff at the source. Moleaer has partnered with RainAg, a leading provider of liquid fertilizer products to market new nanobubble-infused fertilizers. The fertilizers have been trialed across a range of commodity crops including corn, cotton, wheat and sugarcane, fruit and vegetable crops and on turf and silviculture. In addition to crop yield, profitability, and marketability benefits, the nanobubble-infused fertilizers have also been proven to reduce fertilizer utilization as well as off target nutrient runoff and groundwater leaching by improving soil conditions and increasing nutrient uptake in plants. This also means less fertilizer is required to achieve the same yields.
According to Warren Russel, CCO of Moleaer, “using resources more efficiently by delivering nutrients in a way they can be fully utilized provides significant opportunities for agricultural operations. Through RainAg’s micronizing of nutrients and by enhancing both the delivery and absorption of nutrients, Moleaer’s nanobubble technology enables growers to use nutrients more efficiently to achieve better outputs and higher yields. This promotes sustainability and reduces the environmental impact from nutrient run off.”
Today it has become clear that we can’t ignore the connectivity of our various systems. Try as we might to simplify issues, we can’t separate food production from water health and availability or from energy use. At S2G we believe in tackling problems holistically through a systems lens which is why we are investing in companies not just across the food chain but also in the ocean and most recently energy sectors. Moleaer’s nanobubble solution can be used to address issues in a wide variety of industries to improve the quality of our food, water, and other natural resources. Most recently, the nanobubble generators have been instrumental in increasing dissolved oxygen levels at the Dominguez Channel in Carson, California to eliminate the production of hydrogen sulfide gas which produces a rotten egg smell. Moleaer deployed 14 nanobubble generators, treating over 40,000 gallons of water per minute and 60 millions gallons per day at the height of treatment to remediate the odor in the channel.
“Moleaer technology enables customers across a range of industries to boost productivity sustainably and solve environmental challenges more responsibly. Industries use our company’s products and services to increase food production, treat water with less chemicals, and recover natural resources more sustainably. As populations grow and efforts to reduce the effects of climate change become increasingly important, future proofing water, food and natural resources is essential.”
- Moleaer CEO, Nick Dyner