Radiation loving algae comes to Japan's rescue

Japan’s Fukushima disaster is spawning billions of green, slimy photosynthetic organisms throughout its countryside - algae that is. Government grants are financing research into using algae harvesting technology as a new approach to radiation remediation.

I met with Riggs Eckelberry, president & CEO of California-based start-up OriginOil today. Eckelberry said that company, which makes solutions for renewable energy and treating wastewater, was selected by the Research Institute of Tsukuba Bio-tech to build up to 100 algae production sites in Japan via government financing.

Algae are capable of absorbing radioactive isotopes such as cesium, which were released in vast quantities during the nuclear disaster. Aerial contamination was widespread with cesium levels peaking at 50 million times normal levels, becoming the largest accidental release of radiation into the ocean in history. While the ocean took the brunt of the radiation, fallout fouled agricultural crops as well as beef and fish. The potential impact on human health is evident, and is being dealt with through both traditional and nontraditional means.

It’s just not easy work. Japan has suffered stalled soil decontamination efforts and is encountering local resistance to storing the waste. Radiation rapidly diluted in the ocean, but is a nettlesome problem on the land because rainwater will re-contaminate fields even after topsoil has already been cleared. Effective clean-up is a Sisyphean task, and might demand a new approach.

If OriginOil’s proof of concept (it’s not just going to be deployed at 100 places by default) proves successful, algae could become an effective remediation approach. Industrial hemp was used to clean up after Chernobyl, so it’s not unreasonable to foresee algae being successful. Japan’s open checkbook also helps.

Eckelberry noted that Japan is willing to spend whatever it takes to eliminate the radiation threat. New innovations will undoubtably come as a result from the clean-up effort.

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