words and photos by Claude Christensen

If you’ve been to Lake Erie, you know: Compared to other Great Lakes, it’s not too pretty. The green water can be so thick with algae it’s like a rolling sea of avocado-colored wall paint.

Algae is a sign of a nutrient-rich environment. But some of those algae blooms, like the blue-green toxin-producing cyanobacteria algal blooms, can be incredibly dangerous. Exposure to these harmful algae blooms can cause rashes, asthma-like symptoms and vomiting in adults. Children and the elderly are even more susceptible. Small animals may die if overexposed.

By combining the science of spectrometry, DIY culture, citizen science and a bit of entrepreneurial savvy, five Akron-based academics are doing their best to create a business-centered solution to the lack of data on harmful algae blooms.

The phosphorus and nitrogen present in commercial fertilizer runoff are driving a boom in harmful algae blooms — especially in the summer, when the combination of nutrients, sunlight and fair conditions in the shallow lake lead to a rapid rise in the number and breadth of these blooms.

It’s difficult to comprehensively monitor both the sources of pollution and the algae blooms themselves.

Dr. Feng compares the Erie Open Systems spectrometer (right) to a Hach DR 1900 Portable Spectrophotometer (left). (Photo: Claude Christensen)

But University of Akron biomimicry fellows and doctoral candidates Banafsheh Khakipoor and Kelly Siman are working on a solution.

Along with UA research scientist Dr. Jiansheng Feng, assistant professor of polymer research Dr. Hunter King, and department of chemistry assistant professor Dr. Adam Smith, Kelly and Banafsheh are working on a cheap, reliable way to measure the amount of nutrients responsible for algae growth in local water systems.

Their invention could help locate places where phosphorus and nitrogen pollution is highly concentrated. And it could provide useful data on the day-to-day status and condition of the toxic algae blooms.

Erie Open Systems began when Banafsheh and Kelly were struggling to collect enough data for their research to understand harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie.

“There’s not enough data points because the current equipment, especially spectrometers, are too expensive,” Kelly says.

Spectrometers, sometimes also called spectrophotometers, work by measuring the spectrum of light that filters through a sample of a transparent medium, like water. The way light filters through a sample can reveal a lot about its composition.

That’s why spectrometers are so useful for determining the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in lakes and rivers. But these spectrometers sell for between about $1,500 and $3,500.

“And they require trained professionals to operate,” Kelly adds. “That training is also expensive.”

This presents a huge problem for water-quality research. Although individual tests with the aforementioned expensive spectrometers can be highly accurate, more data points are necessary for scientists to track harmful algae blooms. 

Side-by-side comparison of the $40 Erie Open Systems spectrometer, left, and the $3,369 Hach DR 1900 Portable Spectrophotometer, right. (Photo: Claude Christensen)

“That’s when we thought ‘Well, there’s got to be a low-cost, open-source device we can design that anyone can use that can create results we could trust,’” says Kelly.

They took this idea to the Cleveland Water Alliance’s 2017 Erie Hack, placing third in the competition. The win gave them a cash reward of $10,000 and $5,000 in in-kind goods and services. They also came away with an improvement on their original idea.

The improvement? Starting a business.

All they had to do was sell low-cost, easy-to-use tools to measure water quality. It doesn’t matter if the data these tools collect are as accurate as the results given by expensive equipment, Kelly says — they just need to be accurate enough.

Working with local schools, nature clubs and parks, they could get everyday citizens to contribute to the pool of data on Lake Erie. And they could also raise awareness of the harmful effects and causes of these algae blooms at the same time.  

So they started their company, Erie Open Systems, LLC.

Erie Open Systems spectrometers, which are still being designed, will be small, hand-sized rectangular boxes made of acrylic plastic and equipped with an internal battery, LED light and sample chamber. When the spectrometer is ready, the company will offer a fully-made, ready-to-go kit for sale. They will sell for only $40.

Combined with a smartphone app that is also still in development, the Erie Open Systems spectrometer can measure the spectrum of light that filters through a water sample treated with a reagent available at any fish or pet store. The app can then give an accurate measurement of how much of a certain nutrient, like algae-producing phosphorus and nitrogen, is in the water.

The Erie Open Systems team still has to figure out a few kinks in the design of the spectrometer before they’re ready to start taking orders. But they have already provided the design schematics and bill of materials needed to create the spectrometer freely to anyone visiting their website.

That’s intentional.

“In general, but especially for this product, we care more about how we can aid in environmental research and educational outreach than how much we can increase product sales,” Dr. Feng says.

From left to right, Dr. Jiansheng Feng, Dr. Hunter King, and Kelly Siman. (Photo: Claude Christensen)

The UA team could not have created the spectrometer without using open-sourced designs, and they want their own design to remain available to anyone with the tools and desire to create one.

This is also reflected in the underlying vision the five founders have for their company.

Erie Open Systems will place a premium on creating  a positive impact on environmental research and the education of the general public, not on profit. That’s how the five founders — Kelly, Banafsheh, Dr. King, Dr. Jiansheng, and Dr. Smith — plan to measure its success.

In addition to the monies awarded by Erie Hack, Erie Open Systems has received grants from the University of Akron and the Ohio Sea Grant. They don’t plan on taking venture capital to support the production of the spectrometer.

“The company is the thing that facilitates the idea,” says Hunter, “not the other way around.”

For more information about Erie Open Systems, visit www.erieopen.tech.

To learn more about harmful algae blooms, visit: www.noaa.gov/what-is-harmful-algal-bloom or https://www.usgs.gov/news/science-harmful-algae-blooms.

This story is part of The Devil Strip’s Akropreneurs series, which is made possible by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Fund for Our Economic Future.

Claude Christensen lived in Cleveland near Edgewater Beach till he was nine. He’s very familiar with the various green shades of Lake Erie.

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