Research project springs to life

Synapse has helped an Island businessperson, a university researcher and an international graduate student score a national research internship. The research partners are exploring if sea lettuce can be harvested and processed as an affordable source of alternative energy or nutrient-rich fertilizer.

While renowned for Coach Atlantic Group’s local and regional bus transportation services, entrepreneur Mike Cassidy also has Transcon International Ltd., a company with a history of battling sea lettuce. In 2011, Cassidy purchased equipment to test ways to reduce sea lettuce in Island waterways, as part of a government-funded project.

Sea lettuce is invasive algae that spreads quickly, especially when fertilizer nitrates run off into waterways accelerating the sea lettuce’s growth. Blankets of sea lettuce clog waterways, smother shellfish, and make it hard for marine plants and animals to feed and thrive.

As sea lettuce dies off and decomposes, it not only stinks it also robs oxygen from water, creating unlivable “anoxic” conditions that can lead to fish kills. But, as the original project revealed, removing sea lettuce is not easy. Challenges ranged from controlling costs and finding moneymaking uses for sea lettuce to timing sea lettuce removal at low tide and before seasonal blooms.

Rethinking an eco-problem

Those findings made Cassidy determined to take what he had learned and seek the best ways to tackle sea lettuce. For a different approach, he has enlisted the engineering talents of Dr. Bishnu Acharya, an Assistant Professor at the University of Prince Edward Island’s School of Sustainable Design Engineering.

To make research investments go further, they approached the team at Synapse Inc. for support. Synapse made sure they had covered all the bases to prepare a successful proposal for a Mitacs Accelerate research internship.

As a result, Cassidy, Acharya and international graduate student Ankita Shrestha received an eight-month research internship. The total project, valued at $30,000, sees Mitacs and Cassidy’s Transcon International matching contributions. UPEI is providing in-kind expertise and facilities for the collaboration. Dr. Acharya and Mike Cassidy in UPEI's School of Sustainable Design Engineering

This month, the research team began designing and setting up prototype equipment in a lab at UPEI. There, Acharya envisions the team will combine pressure and temperature to dehydrate and convert the sea lettuce into a hydrochar, a carbon-rich solid that can be burned as a fuel. The team will use the processed water, under oxygen-deprived conditions to break it down into two other products: biogas and a leftover matter called digestate. That digestate could have potential for soil applications like natural fertilizers.

Before sea lettuce can grow to peak levels this spring season, Cassidy’s harvester and conveyer will haul out samples for testing with the prototype equipment. The team will study different attributes of sea lettuce and tweak their lab process to identify products that could be eventually burned as fuel and used to remediate or fertilize soil.

Staying powder?

Cassidy hopes this internship will lead to an affordable process and one or more uses for sea lettuce that meet market needs. That kind of solution is most likely to attract businesses to invest in harvesting and processing sea lettuce, all the while improving waterways and sparing Islanders and tourists from catching whiffs of rotting sea lettuce.

Whether it results in a nutrient-rich powder or another product that adds value, Cassidy sees tremendous opportunities for this second go at sea lettuce. Acharya figures that a proven prototype may also apply to other types of sludge, like from wastewater, leaving the door open for future research projects to spring up.