WOODBINE — Pond scum could be in the future for eighth-grader Dylan Cruz.
Cruz was one of 17 Woodbine Elementary School students who toured the Garden State bioEnterprises laboratory this week on Heine Avenue. He learned how a common algae that grows in freshwater ponds is being turned into cash as a superantioxidant vitamin supplement.
It got the 14-year-old thinking. The field trip was designed to teach the students about real-world applications of science, math, economics and other lessons they are learning in school. Cruz just kept thinking about how you could make money off algae, or pond scum.
“I think I’ll look at it now in a different way. I think it could be something big. This is a town where I feel a lot of people need jobs. This could help us,” Cruz said.
He wasn’t the only student who marveled at the possibilities as scientists from bioEnterprises led them on the tour Wednesday morning. They watched as the green freshwater algae, Haematococcus pluvialis, was grown in large tanks using LED lights.
Site Director Paul Mulligan explained how the blue-and-red wavelengths of light are perfect for driving photosynthesis. It’s better than the sun, Mulligan noted, because only 10 percent of natural sunlight is this type of light. With light and nutrients, the algae is spurred to divide and multiply, doubling the population in two or three days.
“This is agriculture. This is a vegetable being grown, but you’re managing your crop under a microscope instead of with a tractor out on a field,” Mulligan said.
And like milking cow, Mulligan said, the algae has to be tended to every day. Once a certain amount is grown, a different type of light is used to stress the algae. When it gets too much light or not enough water, it goes into a dormant stage and turns red. Mulligan asks the students if they ever have seen a red ring around a dried-up bird bath. This is when it produces the antioxidant astaxanthin that is sold as a dietary supplement.
“Astaxanthin can savage free radicals and protect cell health. It’s particularly good for eye and brain health. It’s 150 times more powerful than vitamin E,” Mulligan said.
The students peppered Mulligan with questions.
“How long does it take?” a student asked.
“On a farm it takes a season. With algae, you can get a crop in a couple days,” Mulligan said.
“How many species of algae do you grow?” another student asked.
Mulligan said the operation, only in its second year, is concentrating on the one species for now but could grow others. Algae production is an industry in its infancy but it is being used to feed shellfish, dye foods, experiment with new bio-fuels and other applications.
“The algae industry is at the same place personal computers were in 1980. A lot of the industry is fairly new. It’s poised for a dramatic take-off,” Mulligan said.
Eighth-grade math teacher Margaret Benson was pretty impressed.
“It’s fascinating. It’s so high-tech and right in our little town. You can make it happen even in small towns,” Benson said.
She said the students learned some science, technology, math, business, commerce and entrepreneurial lessons on the tour.
Mayor William Pikolycky also liked what he saw. He recalled the firm coming here several years with ideas of making ethanol or bio-diesel fuel. Instead, it decided to turn the defunct wooden pallet factory into an algae farm. Pikolycky said biology students from Richard Stockton College and Rutgers University have found jobs there and was happy to hear when it reaches full production it could supply 12 jobs.
The students got to see the algae magnified in microscopes and learned how an algae farm has the same problem as those on land fighting pests. In this case, the pests are other microorganisms that can eat the beneficial algae. When this happens, the technicians have some tricks, such as changing the pH of the water, to kill the pests.
“Sometimes, we have to dump the tank and start over,” algae technician Josh Kiernan said.
Mulligan said the astaxanthin is what turns salmon pink and makes it so healthy. Farm-raised salmon doesn’t have this color. Mulligan said seafood is healthy because it eats algae, or eats other fish that live on algae. This is also how the fish gain oils known for their health benefits.
“Omega 3 oils originate in algae. Vegetarians who don’t want fish oil will opt to get Omega 3 that comes from algae. Our industry tries to go back to the origin of that nutritional goodness,” Mulligan said.
Students left with differing views on the idea of someday farming algae.
“I don’t think I want to do this. I’m into plant biology,” Jared White, 14, said.
Cruz had a different view.
“I feel I would like to do this when I get older,” he said.
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