Case researcher has a plan to beat back Lake Erie’s summer scourge
The toxic algae that invades Lake Erie each summer has a new foe. Huichun “Judy” Zhang, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, plans to attack the dreaded algal blooms with engineering.
Both the state and federal governments are supporting her efforts with a combined $700,000 in research grants.
Zhang, who specializes in environmental chemistry and engineering, devised a two-pronged plan for confronting the farm run-off believed to fuel the blooms. First, she wants to decontaminate livestock manure. Second, she intends to filter phosphorus from the fertilizers that farmers spread upon their fields.
Both the manure and the fertilizers are washed by rain into rivers and streams, sending contaminated runoff north toward Lake Erie. De-toxifying that brew demands some nifty engineering.
Zhang envisions a series of honeycomb-like structures that would capture phosphorous from run-off before it reaches the lake. She’s working with a phosphorus expert with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service on filter models in the lab. They hope to place the filters in “hot spots” near factory farms. The Ohio Water Development Authority likes the idea and is supporting their project with a two-year, $200,000 grant.
On another tack, Zhang is looking to treat livestock manure that farmers use as fertilizer. That means identifying and removing contaminants that stem from the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. Most of those chemicals are never digested by the animals, Zhang said, and presumably end up on crops or leech into groundwater.
She’s working on the manure project with an expert in sustainable farming at the National University of Ireland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting that research with a three-year, $500,000 grant.
Protecting Lake Erie excites Zhang, who focused on water purification strategies during her doctoral studies at Georgia Institute of Technology. Three years ago, she joined the Case School of Engineering and discovered Lake Erie, where her family now fishes and kayaks.
“We’re definitely trying to look at better practices for farmers, to have a safer environment,” she said. “The goal is a cleaner lake—absolutely!”
Algal Bloom off Kelleys Island, Lake Erie