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UToledo Supports ‘Ohio IP Promise’ to Fuel Innovation, Strengthen Economy

The University of Toledo is one of 14 public universities in the state to unite in Columbus Sept. 6 in support of the “Ohio Intellectual Property (IP) Promise,” an initiative led by Lt. Gov. Jon Husted.

The event hosted by the Inter-University Council of Ohio showcased how universities are working to strengthen Ohio’s innovation economy, attract researchers, and serve as a magnet for investors and entrepreneurs.

“The University of Toledo is proud to participate in the ‘Ohio IP Promise’ in support of our researchers and intellectual property as a powerful tool for economic development,” said UToledo President Sharon L. Gaber, who serves as chair of the Inter-University Council of Ohio. “As we make discoveries and invent new technologies on campus, we work to provide a clear path for our researchers to navigate the journey from the lab to the commercial marketplace.”

The guiding principles of the “Ohio IP Promise” are:

• Flexible: Provide industry choices for accessing intellectual property developed through sponsored research;

• Transparent: Publish template-sponsored research and license agreements;

• Simple: Deliver fair and streamlined guidelines for faculty creator startups;

• Clear: Communicate licensing processes on university websites in a clear, prominent way;

• Easy: Provide well-defined university entry points for industry, investors and entrepreneurs; and

• Fast: Reduce impediments that hinder the pace of transactions.

“Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted challenged our public universities to bring to life their vision for a stronger economy and IP leadership in Ohio,” IUC President Bruce Johnson said. “Our universities have stepped up in a big way with enthusiasm, creativity and imagination. The residents of Ohio will be the short-term and long-term beneficiaries of this program.”

The Office of Technology Transfer at UToledo helps protect intellectual property and provides professional patenting and licensing services to UToledo’s faculty, staff and students.

Grad Student Keeps Children ‘Bookin’ Through the Summer’ Using Mystery Readers, Social Media

On a 90-degree day during one of the last precious weeks of summer break, nearly 30 children gathered at the Bedford Public Library to read together, sing, dance and scavenger hunt.

“The worst thing about going to the library is when I have to leave the library,” said 7-year-old Gunnar Talley, who is entering second grade at Monroe Road Elementary School in Bedford, Mich.

Amy Kochendoerfer, UToledo Ph.D. student, read “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” by Iza Trapani to children participating in “Bookin’ Through the Summer” at the Bedford Public Library in Michigan.

That’s music to Amy Kochendoerfer’s ears.

The Ph.D. student in The University of Toledo Judith Herb College of Education and assistant principal of Monroe Road Elementary School is focused on getting and keeping children hooked on books through her innovative, 12-week summer reading program, which debuted 11 weeks ago.

“This is an incredible turnout today — almost half of the children participating in our program — because we’re competing with football and cheerleading practices and end-of-summer vacations,” Kochendoerfer said. “Every week we’ve averaged about 40 children at the library.”

She and Dawn Henderson, a speech pathologist for Monroe County, spent the summer piloting their program to help the youngest children at Monroe Road Elementary School avoid the “summer slide,” the term used to describe how reading and academic skills regress over summer break.

The two raised $4,300 from organizations in Bedford to fund “Bookin’ Through The Summer,” an intervention project blending free books, mystery readers, parents, social media and library adventures.

“We want them to go back to school ready to start at the point they left off,” Henderson said. “This has been a true community-wide effort.”

It stems from Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law, which goes into effect this school year.

“I created this new spin on how to keep kids reading over the summer because the state of Michigan passed a law that if a child can’t read by third grade, he or she will be retained and have to repeat third grade,” Kochendoerfer said. “They need to catch that bug for books to keep growing, so we created a way to turn reading from a boring task into something fun and interactive.”

Talley is one of the 68 children in kindergarten, first, second and third grades participating in the program who received a book every week in the mail with a flyer for parents outlining suggestions to make reading the book together more engaging.

Aside from the optional meetings once a week at the library, the key ingredients that make this recipe sing are Facebook and mystery readers.

The organizers created a private Facebook page where parents interacted and shared photos and videos of their children’s thoughts or crafts stemming from the books, including puppet shows.

Mystery readers from throughout the community also popped up regularly on the page reading and discussing the book of the week.

“Everyone we approached was excited to shoot a video of themselves reading the book and talking about the book in order to help keep the children motivated. The mystery readers sent us their videos, we posted them, and the parents sat down and watched them with their kids,” Kochendoerfer said. “We had varsity football players, cheerleaders, our state representative, a sheriff’s deputy and teachers reading to our children on social media. The buy-in from the community was incredible.”

Especially from the parents.

“These moms and dads understand the importance of literacy, but we know how difficult it can be in the summer when you’re out of the school routine,” Henderson said. “They took this opportunity to help their children discover the love of reading by sitting down with them and modeling these weekly habits.”

Kochendoerfer, who is already coming up with creative ways to enhance the project next summer, believes this program also allowed parents to model responsible social media interaction.

“You see so much how social media is a negative influence on children, but our summer reading program was all about encouragement,” Kochendoerfer said. “Kids are able to contribute and share their ideas through their parents in a forum that is not threatening. Our secret group is a safe environment to receive immediate, supportive feedback. That’s critical.”

“Amy’s work to encourage children to have fun and enjoy reading books together is yielding great results,” said Dr. Susanna Hapgood, associate professor in the UToledo Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “We know even just 10 to 15 minutes a day of reading to children can give them a boost in terms of vocabulary knowledge and motivation for reading that has long-lasting repercussions.”

Though the data comparing student testing results from the end of the last school year to the beginning of this school year aren’t available yet, Gunnar Talley’s dad already calls the program a success.

“This experience is helping my son because it’s not such a drudgery to get him to read anymore,” Edward Talley said. “It still can sometimes be a battle, but not what it used to be.”

U.S. Department of Energy awards UToledo $750,000 to Improve Production of Hydrogen as Clean Fuel

From powering a car to a rocket, hydrogen holds promise as the clean-energy fuel of the future.

The University of Toledo is among 29 universities and organizations across the country to receive a total of $40 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for new projects focused on using hydrogen as fuel.

Yan

The goal of the H2@Scale concept is to enable affordable and reliable large-scale hydrogen generation, transport, storage and utilization in the United States and beyond.

NASA’s mission to Mars hinges on the ability to split water — in the form of ice — to produce hydrogen on the moon as fuel to reach the Red Planet.

Hydrogen also could be used on Earth to keep the electrical grid operating to power homes and businesses in the face of extreme weather or cyberattacks.

UToledo was awarded $750,000 to improve water-splitting, the process of breaking apart the water molecule, separating hydrogen from oxygen. The hydrogen, which produces only water when consumed in a fuel cell, can then be used as a clean fuel.

The photovoltaics team, led by Dr. Yanfa Yan, UToledo professor of physics, and Dr. Zhaoning Song, research assistant professor in the UToledo Department of Physics and Astronomy, will develop low-cost photoelectrodes for more efficient photoelectrochemical water splitting using innovative material from their highly successful perovskite solar cells. Perovskites are compound materials with a special crystal structure formed through chemistry.

The perovskite cells can have high efficiency, collecting more of the sun’s energy and transforming it into the electricity needed to split the water molecule and produce hydrogen.

“Perovskite absorbers have drawn extensive attention due to their demonstrated capability of fabricating solar cells with outstanding conversion efficiencies,” Yan said. “We are excited about this opportunity and eager to apply perovskite absorbers to advance the photoelectrochemical water-splitting technology.”

Funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy with contribution from DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, the selected projects will advance hydrogen storage and infrastructure technologies and identify innovative concepts for hydrogen production and utilization, including electrical grid resiliency.

“The H2@Scale concept is a critical piece of the country’s comprehensive energy strategy and an enabler of multiple industries in our economy,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “As an energy carrier, hydrogen has the potential to unite our nation’s domestic energy resources. These selections support the Department of Energy’s mission and advances our commitment to enable economic growth and energy security through the development of more affordable hydrogen technologies.”

“Toledo is at the forefront of the development of innovative technologies that move our country and our world further,” said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. “I am pleased to see that The University of Toledo has been awarded this valuable $750,000 grant from the Department of Energy to facilitate the University’s important research into hydrogen as clean fuel and to cement our region as a clean energy, research and manufacturing hub.”

The U.S. produces more than 10 million tons of hydrogen, nearly one-seventh of the global supply, primarily for oil refining and fertilizer production.

Hydrogen infrastructure includes more than 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipeline, a growing network of stations, and thousands of tons of storage in underground caverns.

Yan and Song are members of the UToledo Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization.

Scientists Discover Single Gene That Explains Songbird Migration

Ornithologists at The University of Toledo played a critical role in new collaborative research identifying a single gene that defines whether rare, tiny songbirds that reproduce in the Great Lakes region and Appalachian Mountains spend their winters in South America or Central America.

Dr. Henry Streby, assistant professor in the UToledo Department of Environmental Sciences, and Gunnar Kramer, Ph.D. candidate in environmental sciences and UToledo graduate dean’s fellow, laid the groundwork for the genetics discovery published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A golden-winged warbler carried a geolocator in Minnesota. UToledo researchers created the tiny tracker to find out where the songbirds migrated for the winter.

With collaborators at Cornell University, Penn State and the University of Colorado, the team’s findings may have important conservation implications for the declining populations of golden-winged warblers.

Starting six years ago, the UToledo team led a massive collaborative field study: Across eastern North America, they caught golden-winged warblers on their breeding grounds, gathered blood samples, placed tiny geolocator technology on the birds, and completed long-distance, cutting-edge migration tracking analysis. Streby and Kramer then gave the samples and data to genetics researchers at Penn State and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who performed whole genome resequencing.

“Only one gene tells the story of the final wintering destination, and it makes sense because it is affiliated with muscles and movement in humans,” Streby said. “Migration is a very complex set of behavioral and physiological traits, and we know this one gene can’t be responsible for all of it. But it’s a critical first step that gives everyone in the field something to build on. This exciting ecology and evolutionary discovery proves the powerful potential of research collaboration.”

Streby

Streby and Kramer already had answered the question of where these birds go: Golden-winged warblers from declining populations spend winters in northern South America. Stable populations of the species spend winters in Central America.

Researchers at the collaborating universities then used the data and blood samples from the migrating birds to investigate genetic differences between birds that winter in Central America and those that winter in South America. The majority of these differences occurred in a small region on the bird’s Z chromosome, a sex-determining chromosome like the X and Y chromosomes in humans. Only one gene, called VPS13A, was present in this region.

Although the gene does not yet have any known function in birds, in humans it is associated with the neurodegenerative disorder chorea-acanthocytosis, which affects movement.

Gunnar Kramer held a golden-winged warbler, which carried a geolocator. Researchers attached the tiny backpack to the bird in 2015 and recovered it in 2016. The data on the geolocator helped Kramer understand the warbler’s migratory route and winter location.

“In this study, we found only one gene associated with the final wintering destination of golden-winged and blue-winged warblers,” said Dr. David Toews, assistant professor of biology at Penn State and leader of the research team. “As we come to better understand the role of this gene in humans, we may also gain important insights to its role in migration in birds.”

According to the researchers, the gene appears to be a target of natural selection in birds that winter in South America.

“Golden-winged warblers are rapidly declining in the Appalachian Mountains. Conservation efforts have focused on protecting the breeding grounds, which is important, but declines also appear strongly related to habitat alteration and destruction in the wintering grounds,” Streby said.

“The global attention on the fires in the Amazon highlight the importance of these South American habitats, and these migratory birds illustrate an inextricable link between hemispheres,” Toews said.

For Streby and Kramer at UToledo, collecting blood samples from the golden-winged warblers to be used for a later genetics’ investigation was a side project to their study identifying the migratory connectivity of the species. They also recorded the birds singing across their whole range and collected feather samples.

It’s what Streby calls “while-you’re-there science.”

“It’s important to conduct all of the useful science while you have the opportunity because you can’t fund six different projects by six research teams to address six questions in the same study system,” Streby said. “For the DNA samples, we knew we needed to find the right researcher who was looking for migration genes.”

Kramer met Toews and Dr. Scott Taylor, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, at the 2016 North American Ornithological Conference in Washington, D.C.

“I quickly realized we had valuable genetic samples that they needed to do exciting complementary research, and we were happy to share our science,” Kramer said. “By working together, we now know what we suspected — there is a genetic component to migration. However, we’re fascinated it appears to be just one gene that explains the major migration divide in the system.”

The study was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Science Foundation, The University of Toledo, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the United States Geological Survey, the United Sates Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Tennessee.

UToledo Psychologists to Study How Classical Music Might Further PTSD Treatment

Researchers at The University of Toledo are teaming up with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra for an innovative project to examine whether classical music could be a useful addition in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For some patients with PTSD, getting to a place in treatment where they are able to confront their emotions can be overwhelming.

Dr. Jason Rose, left, and Dr. Matthew Tull received a two-year, $80,000 grant through the American Orchestras’ Future Fund to study if classical music could be a useful addition in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Our thinking is that music might provide an alternative way to aid patients in connecting with and expressing their emotions, enabling them to stay in these treatments and hopefully benefit more from them,” said Dr. Matthew Tull, professor of psychology and one of the lead researchers on the project. “We’re not looking at classical music as an alternative treatment for PTSD, but something that might facilitate currently available empirically supported treatments for PTSD.”

The Toledo Symphony Orchestra and UToledo were recently awarded a two-year, $80,000 grant through the American Orchestras’ Future Fund to back the research.

In addition to playing recordings, researchers hope to bring Toledo Symphony Orchestra musicians directly into the clinic to examine if there’s a difference in patients’ reactions to live music.

“We are honored to be one of the 19 orchestras in the U.S. to receive this special grant,” said Zak Vassar, president and chief executive officer of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. “The Futures Fund grant opens many doors for us, and we couldn’t be more excited to collaborate with The University of Toledo on a two-year project exploring the psychological effects of experiencing classical music. Through this collaboration, we are able to advance the state of the performing arts, not just in our community, but across the globe.”

The project’s first year will focus on experiments that examine the effects of bursts of classical music on targeted emotional experiences. Researchers will monitor those effects by testing for both psychological and physiological reactions.

In the second year, researchers will marry their laboratory findings with traditional treatment strategies in the clinic to see what extent classical music can help patients with PTSD.

“Music has such a great emotion-evoking quality about it. There is research on how music affects emotion, but there really hasn’t been much on the impact of classical music on individuals with PTSD. We believe this is an innovative project,” said Dr. Jason Rose, associate professor of psychology and the other lead researcher on the project.

The American Orchestras’ Future Funds program is supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

UToledo Expertise Sought to Examine Poverty in City, County

A new study by the Jack Ford Urban Affairs Center at The University of Toledo focuses on poverty in Toledo and Lucas County using different lenses and sheds new light on who is struggling in our area and why.

Toledo City Council commissioned UToledo experts to prepare the report and offer recommendations based on successful practices demonstrated in other cities.

Dr. Sujata Shetty talked about the report that examines local poverty during a Toledo City Council Committee meeting Aug. 15.

“Our goal is to provide a more nuanced understanding of poverty and encourage targeted collaboration,” said Dr. Sujata Shetty, professor in the UToledo Department of Geography and Planning, interim director of the Jack Ford Urban Affairs Center, and lead researcher on the report. “Thank you to Toledo City Council and the city of Toledo for the opportunity to do this critical work, which we hope will be useful to the city, spark meaningful change, and help families.”

The report examines housing affordability, educational attainment, employment, cost of living and other factors associated with poverty, as well as geographic areas that show relatively higher concentrations of poverty and related characteristics.

“We care deeply about the community and are proud to be Toledo’s university,” UToledo President Sharon L. Gaber said. “As a public institution, the heart of our mission is to use our expertise and knowledge to improve lives.”

The study’s findings using 2017 data include:

• 26.5% of residents in the city of Toledo lived below the federal poverty level, compared to 19% of Lucas County residents.

• 32.3% of the city’s residents had a high school diploma as their highest educational attainment.

• 48% of city residents are renters, and 52% own their home.

The report also offers solutions that other cities found to be effective in fighting poverty and helping families.

Those anti-poverty initiatives include:

• Cincinnati’s “Hand Up Initiative,” which provides people in dire need with training opportunities and gets them back to work into jobs with higher pay through partnerships with organizations and corporations, focused on fields such as truck driving, construction and home-care aid.

• St. Paul’s “Job Opportunity Fund,” which offers $500,000 in low-interest loans to spur job creation and retention by supporting business ventures in defined areas of concentrated poverty.

• Lancaster’s “Commission to Combat Poverty” and “One Year Strategies,” which resulted in the creation of nine functioning “action teams” that focus on a particular segment of the poverty challenge, such as jobs action, food security, education and data analysis.

• Rochester’s “Kiva Rochester Crowdfunded Loans Program,” where residents can apply for loans ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 with 0% interest and no fees. The fees are crowdfunded, and the loans are for small business owners looking to create jobs by performing renovations, paying training fees, and buying new equipment.

Several UToledo graduate students assisted on this project, including Alex DiBell, who is pursuing a master’s degree in geography and planning while working as a policy intern for Toledo City Council, and Ph.D. students Brittany Jones and Philemon Abayateye.

Doctoral Student’s Research Brings New Insight to Removing Breastfeeding Barriers

A new study from The University of Toledo suggests providing more robust support for new mothers who experience stressful life events leading up to the baby’s birth, such as a lost job or a critically ill family member, could improve breastfeeding rates.

Slightly more than half of U.S. mothers follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that their infants receive only breast milk for the first six months of their lives.

Dugat

Vickie Dugat wanted to better understand what barriers may exist for women — and identify efforts that might remove some.

“There’s a lot of data that suggests it’s beneficial for both mother and baby to breastfeed for six months,” said Dugat, a health education doctoral student in the UToledo College of Health and Human Services. “This is an issue that we need to talk about, and one that needs to be researched more deeply.”

There are a variety of reasons why new mothers may either choose not to breastfeed or find themselves unable to do so. A lack of family and social support, embarrassment, personal preference, lactation problems, and work-related issues are commonly cited in studies of American breastfeeding practices.

As Dugat sifted through the existing literature, she noticed that little work had been done examining the association between prenatal stressful life events and exclusive breastfeeding.

With help from Dr. Joseph Dake, professor and chair of the UToledo School of Population Health, Dugat linked up with a pair of Ohio University researchers to dig into the issue.

Using a data set of nearly 44,000 U.S. mothers, researchers compared breastfeeding statistics for an infant’s first three months with self-reported incidents of 13 major stressful events in the mother’s life during the year prior to birth.

Included in that list were separations or divorce, homelessness, moving to a new address, bills that couldn’t be paid, someone close to them suffering with a drug or alcohol problem, lost jobs, and the death or serious illness of someone close to them.

Their findings, published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, found a clear connection between higher numbers of stressful life events and lower rates of exclusive breastfeeding for three months.

Of the U.S. mothers included in their data set, 52 percent of those who did not report any major stressful life events in the year prior to giving birth were more likely to breastfeed exclusively for three months. Among women who experienced three or more stressful life events, that dropped to just 32 percent.

While the findings were consistent across most demographic groups, the association between stressful life events and shorter duration of breastfeeding was most pronounced for women younger than age 30.

“The implication is it might be possible to create policies or programs to educate lactation consultants and physicians on which population may need a little bit more assistance when it comes to breastfeeding and handling stressful life events,” said Dugat, who was lead author on the study. “We could also potentially improve breastfeeding practices with efforts that minimize exposure to stressful life events.”

Originally from Florida, Dugat completed her undergraduate work at the University of Florida and earned a master’s in public health from Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

She chose UToledo for her doctoral work after meeting Dake at a conference and learning the flexibility she’d have in her research here.

“Something that we pride ourselves in is that we do not assign our doctoral students to a particular faculty member when they come in,” Dake said. “There are benefits to that, but our program is geared a little more toward allowing them to explore and shift their research interests, as long as it’s under the oversight of a faculty member who can be a good mentor to them.”

For Dugat, who is passionate about improving the health of mothers and infants, that freedom to pursue her interests was crucial in selecting a doctoral program.

“I absolutely love that. With other Ph.D. programs, sometimes you have to do the research that faculty are already doing,” Dugat said. “Having that flexibility and the ability to be creative in my research is what attracted me here.”

Thanks to the relationship Dake has built with Ohio University through the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health, he was able to make a connection for Dugat with researchers who had similar areas of interest.

“We really try to push the idea that if you love what you do, you spend time on it, and you’re passionate at what you do, you’re going to be a better professional, and you’re going to be more successful in it,” Dake said.

UToledo physicists awarded $7.4 million to rev up solar technology to power space vehicles

The U.S. Air Force awarded a team of physicists at The University of Toledo $7.4 million to enhance the reliability and efficiency of lightweight power to improve the safety and effectiveness of Department of Defense missions.

Dr. Randall Ellingson, professor in the UToledo Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the UToledo Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization will lead the five-year contract to develop solar technology that is lightweight, flexible, highly efficient and durable in space so it can provide power for space vehicles using sunlight.

Dr. Randall Ellingson has received $7.4 million from the U.S. Air Force to develop solar technology that is lightweight, flexible, highly efficient and durable to improve the safety and effectiveness of Department of Defense missions.

Ellingson is applying his persistent dedication to discovery in the fast-growing field of photovoltaics to champion the U.S. armed forces by advancing power generation technologies for space vehicle applications to survive natural and man-made threats.

“Our goal is to protect our troops and enhance national security by accelerating the performance of solar cells,” Ellingson said. “Our primary goal is to reduce the power system payload by developing highly efficient and lightweight technology to replace liquid fuels and minimize battery storage needs.”

In order for the technology to achieve both high efficiency and the flexibility to be used on a curved surface like a wing or fuselage, Ellingson’s team is making tandem solar cells — two different solar cells stacked on top of each other that use two different parts of the sun’s spectrum — on very thin, flexible supporting material.

UToledo physicists have had great success drawing record levels of power from the same amount of sunlight using the tandem technique with what are called perovskites, compound materials with a special crystal structure formed through chemistry.

“The University of Toledo is a worldwide leader driving innovation in photovoltaics research, education and application,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said. “This critical collaboration with the U.S. Air Force strengthens national security and fuels a cleaner energy future for generations to come.”

UToledo’s flexible, lightweight, low-cost technology will be tested under space-like radiation exposure.

“In outer space, the radiation environment is much more harsh, where high-energy photons and particles, arising from both our sun and our galaxy, can damage the solar cells,” Ellingson said.

“We are proud our photovoltaics team at The University of Toledo has been selected once again to use its state-of-the-art expertise to advance Air Force missions in service to the nation,” Dr. Frank Calzonetti, UToledo vice president for research, said. “This major award demonstrates the high regard the U.S. Air Force has in The University of Toledo’s solar energy research capabilities and the confidence in our research team. Dr. Ellingson has performed exceptionally well in meeting the high demands of the Air Force in providing research that supports the nation’s defense posture.”

For more than three decades, The University of Toledo has focused with precision on the potential of photovoltaics to transform the world and improve sustainability to combat the energy crisis.

Harold McMaster, an inventor and namesake of UToledo’s McMaster Hall, pioneered the vision for commercializing solar energy in northwest Ohio and donated funds to UToledo to gather great minds and craft solutions.

One of the world’s largest manufacturer of solar cells, First Solar, originated in UToledo laboratories.

The University created the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization in January 2007 with $18.6 million in support from the Ohio Department of Development, along with matching contributions of $30 million from federal agencies, universities and industrial partners. The center works to strengthen the photovoltaics and manufacturing base in Ohio, through materials and design innovation.

UToledo Researchers Look to Filter-Feeding Fish to Develop New Way of Collecting Harmful Algae

Researchers at The University of Toledo are using clues from nature to engineer a potential solution to address the annual algal blooms that foul Lake Erie and hundreds of other freshwater lakes across the world.

The innovative project could lead to a new type of filter that would allow scientists to actively screen large amounts of blue-green algae from the water before it’s able to release cyanotoxins.

Dr. Adam Schroeder used dye to demonstrate how a filter inspried by the paddlefish works like a vortex to clean water. The conical cross-step filter could help collect algae from lakes.

“I’m interested in the whole idea of biomimicry. There are lots of processes that biological organisms do really well — much more efficiently than we can,” said Dr. Adam Schroeder, visiting assistant professor in the UToledo College of Engineering. “I want to take algae out of the water. What examples do I have for solutions for separating a particle from the water?”

With help from a College of William and Mary biologist, Schroeder and Dr. Brian Trease, assistant professor of mechanical, industrial and manufacturing engineering, focused on the paddlefish, a prehistoric-looking freshwater fish that lumbers through lakes and rivers with its mouth agape to collect nutritious zooplankton.

“They’re processing lots of water for minutes at a time to filter out food. We can take that concept and then expand it beyond what we see in biology,” Schroeder said.

The research team’s findings were recently published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

Dealing with harmful algal blooms requires a multidisciplinary approach. Researchers at UToledo are studying the health impacts of harmful algal blooms, developing new ways of filtering cyanobacteria out of water, and actively monitoring blooms in Lake Erie.

Schroeder, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from UToledo in 2018, brings a different perspective.

“Somebody without any knowledge of the problem might say why can’t we just pick up the algae,” he said. “So why can’t we? It’s nice to explore that idea — what would we need to do to get rid of the algae?”

Currently, environmental scientists gathering algal samples use conventional-looking nets that have a small canister at the end to collect algae. The trouble with using those nets to remove large amounts of algae, however, is that they can only gather so much before they clog.

When the paddlefish feeds, its mouth creates a vortex of swirling water that helps it collect food indefinitely without its biological filters clogging. Using that concept, Schroeder developed a conical cross-step filter that mimics the paddlefish while adding creative engineering solutions.

Lab tests showed their design is able to transport suspended particles roughly the same size as the predominant Lake Erie algae downstream toward the end of the filter and is resistant — though not immune — to clogging.

The researchers’ next step is to develop a method for sequestering the particles after they exit the back of the filter. If they can do that and develop a method to remove what particles attach to the filter walls, it might be possible to create a filtering apparatus that can operate continuously in lake waters.

“We see this as a complementary solution. The real problem is that the algae is there in the first place. We have to stop all these nutrients from getting in the water, but that’s a really hard problem to solve and even harder to do it quickly,” Schroeder said.

In the meantime, he believes it is worth examining other, out-of-the-box ideas that might contribute to making lakes and rivers healthier.

“You don’t need to clean up the whole bloom, but maybe you need to keep a 500-meter radius clear of algae. That’s something we might be able to do,” Schroeder said.

Algae Researchers to Fan Out Across Lake Erie to Collect Water Samples Aug. 7

Five years after a water crisis in Toledo left half a million residents without safe tap water for three days, environmental scientists from the U.S. and Canada will board research vessels and fan out across western Lake Erie to collect water samples at nearly 200 locations in four hours in a united effort to create a high-resolution picture of this summer’s harmful algal bloom (HAB) and ultimately protect the public drinking water supply.

The second annual HABs Grab on Wednesday, Aug. 7, will bring together researchers from The University of Toledo, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Bowling Green State University, Wayne State University, Michigan Technological University, Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and LimnoTech. The HABs Grab has nearly doubled in size this year with the addition of Canadian partners, including the University of Windsor, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, left, and Zachary Swan, a graduate student, examined a YSI EXO sonde, which is used to measure water quality parameters, including how much blue-green algae is present, temperature, clarity, oxygen levels, turbidity and pH.

A major goal is to estimate the mass of total microcystin toxin for one day during the peak of algal bloom season, as well as to characterize the different forms of microcystin and the genes that produce them.

“Collaboration is critical in our efforts to understand a harmful algal bloom as large as Lake Erie’s — the lake is simply too large for one organization to handle,” Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center and professor of ecology, said. “This massive one-day sampling event allows us to not only analyze the current bloom, but focus on unraveling the mystery of why some algal blooms are highly toxic, while others are less so.”

Bridgeman, who has studied algae in the Great Lakes for nearly two decades, and his research team at UToledo collect samples and track cyanobacteria throughout Lake Erie’s western basin once a week every summer during algal bloom season.

“Harmful algal blooms are an international issue,” Bridgeman said. “The ultimate solution is to prevent blooms from growing in the first place by preventing water pollution. In the meantime, discovering what triggers a bloom to start producing toxins would be a large step toward protecting people, pets and wildlife.”

HABs Grab is funded by NOAA’s ECOHAB research program.

“The main goal of the project is to develop a bloom toxicity forecast, and the HABs Grab provides data to estimate toxin mass in the lake,” said Dr. Justin Chaffin, leader of the HABs Grab project who is based at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. Chaffin earned his Ph.D. in biology from UToledo in 2013 while studying in Bridgeman’s lab.

“This coordinated effort will assist in improving the accuracy of microcystin toxin concentrations in HAB forecast products,” Deborah Lee, director of the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, said. “It is a true testament to collaboration and coordination across institutional and international boundaries.”

The Lake Erie Center is UToledo’s freshwater research and science education campus focused on finding solutions to water quality issues that face the Great Lakes, including harmful algal blooms, invasive species and pollutants.