More than 2 million people were left scrambling for safe drinking water after China’s Lake Taihu exploded with algae a decade ago, and ever since then, the government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year trying to solve the problem. One of the most awe-inspiring solutions involves harvesting algae from Lake Taihu before it spreads too far, and turning it into a flexible, rubbery material that is now being used to make shoes. [1]

Lake Taihu has been mostly famous for its out-of-control algae problem over the last 20 years. The water contains a noxious mixture of billions of tons of wastewater, animal waste, and garbage which has flowed unconstrained due to weak regulations. The body of water is intended to provide 30 million people with drinking water, but the blue-green algae kills marine life, and is hard to filter out. [2]

It was in 2007 when nearly 1/3 of the lake was covered in algae, and the government suspended water collection from Taihu, limiting how much bottled water could cost because of price-gouging. Officials also shut down factories surrounding the lake to stem the pollution.

Turning the Algae into Bio-Plastic

A company called Bloom is the creator of a mobile platform which pulls algae from the lake, purifies the water, returns it to the lake, and then turns the algae into a tiny pellet that can be used like a plastic. The goal of Bloom’s founder, Rob Falken, is to replace conventional plastic products, which are usually made from petroleum-based pellets.

Source: Eco Watch

Falken said:

“The end goal is to remove as much of the petroleum feedstock as possible. When you take a waste stream from nature—there naturally but there in such mass because of manmade inputs—we can take that feedstock, that problem, and functionalize it into usable goods that are the exact same quality, indistinguishable, from the status quo that’s out there today.”

The mobile platform uses gentle suction to draw the algae, while filters prevent marine life from being harmed in the process. The harvester also pulls nitrogen and phosphorus from the water, which makes it harder for algae blooms to flourish. Millions of pounds of algae have been pulled from Lake Taihu by Bloom.

Bloom supplies the plastic-like pellets to Vivobarefoot, which turns the pellets into its water-resistant Ultra III shoes. Currently, the shoes are made from petroleum-based ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). In July 2017, Vivobarefoot will launch a version that is a blend of algae and EVA, instead. One pair of shoes requires cleaning 57 gallons of water. [1]

Source: Fast Company

The current material uses 40% algae and 60% EVA, but Bloom is working on materials that use more algae.

Algae blooms, which thrive in warm water with high carbon concentrations, are becoming a serious problem all over the world due to climate change. In the United States, algae led Florida to declare a state of emergency in 2016 when it spread from Lake Okeechobee to nearby beaches, killing manatees and other aquatic life.

A toxic algae bloom delayed California’s 2015 crabbing season. And in 2014, an algae bloom in the Ohio River in Ohio made drinking water temporarily unsafe for half a million people in Toledo.

The Ultra III shoes could prove to be an effective method of stomping out both petroleum-based products and algae blooms.

Falken says:

“We’ve already got more algae than we’ll ever need. Two companies are helping to clean China’s Lake Taihu by pulling algae from the water, transforming it into pellets, and using those pellets to make shoes.” [2]

Sources:

[1] Fast Company

[2] Eco Watch


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