In the 1963 movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, a group of strangers competed to find $350,000 of stolen, buried cash. Today, that amount sounds much less impressive than it used to, but a much different group is racing to win $10 million by solving a persistent water-quality problem: excess phosphorus.
Phosphorus-fueled algae blooms are responsible for any number of problems, from merely unpleasant slime in the water that drives away tourists to dead zones that appear in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere to toxic outbreaks like the one in Lake Erie that cut off Toledo’s water supply for several days in 2014. The nutrients that feed the algae—nitrogen and phosphorus—come mostly from agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment plant effluent, and although the causes are well understood, the solution isn’t so simple.
So far, attempts to limit phosphorus entering the water have been less than successful. EPA has announced a plan to reduce by 40% the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Erie by 2025; efforts by agricultural operations would be voluntary. That announcement came in March—the same month that the state of Ohio pronounced the lake’s western basin to be impaired for phosphorus.
A competition sponsored by the Everglades Foundation and the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation—a charitable organization with ties to the fertilizer company—is offering a $10 million incentive. The George Barley Prize will be awarded “to the researcher or research team that can best demonstrate a cost-effective solution for removing phosphorus from natural bodies of water.” This Wall Street Journal article describes one of the finalists—an engineered resin that absorbs and extracts phosphorus for reuse—but there were initially more than 200 entries. Ten finalists are currently demonstrating their methods in cold-weather conditions in Ontario’s Lake Simcoe, to be followed by a warm-weather demonstration in Florida. The winner is expected to be announced in 2019.
Teams from 13 different countries initially submitted ideas, which included the use of floc-forming bacteria (China), biofilm (Tunisia), biochar (Colorado), and floating wetlands (Australia); sending phosphorus-rich surface water into deep injection wells rather than releasing it (Florida); planting vetiver grass (Florida); and using brown algae rather than the toxic blue-green stuff (cyanobacteria) to gobble up the phosphorus (Florida). Numerous devices to extract and recover phosphorus were also proposed. You can see summaries of many of them on the Barley Prize website.