You can help solve Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom problem with University of Akron spectrometers

September 26, 2018 GMT

You can help solve Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom problem with University of Akron spectrometers

AKRON, Ohio -- We know the harmful algal bloom threatens recreation and drinking water in Lake Erie each summer.

Ohio aims to reduce phosphorus runoff into the lake by 40 percent by 2025, to halt the mat of toxic blue-green algae.

But where exactly is the phosphorus coming from? And what can regular people do to help?

A University of Akron lab is working on a low-cost, easy-to-use spectrometer that can measure phosphorus and nitrates in water throughout the Lake Erie watershed, from a backyard stream or a creek near a school. Middle school students, Rotary groups and more can help pinpoint sources of pollution by taking readings with the spectrometer and an iPhone app.


“People in the act of measuring will be part of the solution,” said assistant professor of polymer science Hunter King. “They’ll start to care about the issue.”

The team won third place in the Cleveland Water Alliance 2017 Erie Hack competition, with a prize of $10,000 cash and $5,000 in kind goods and services. The team has also won grants from the University of Akron and Ohio Sea Grant.

While commercial spectrometers can cost thousands of dollars and require intense training, the UA team’s spectrometer costs about $40.

It uses laser-cut and 3D-printed materials, a light and mirror to show how light is absorbed by a water sample mixed with a reagent. The colors missing in the resulting rainbow show how much phosphorus or nitrates are in the water. The app sends the information directly to researchers, providing lots of data to figure out where and when nutrients are flowing into the lake

See the University of Akron story about King Lab.

You can make the spectrometer yourself, since the plans are open-source. But the UA team plans to make them to sell, too, under their new company, Erie Open Solutions.

The technology could be used around the world, wherever algal blooms threaten water.

“With the questions we’re asking in this lab, we don’t need to be on the way high end of precision. But we need to ask the question the right way,” King said.

RocktheLake was live on Facebook with Kelly Simon and Hunter King, in their lab. Watch the video below. And follow RocktheLake on Facebook for more Lake Erie news.