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eNews March 2022

NMSU Student Receives Student Water Research Grant to Study Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms

NMSU Student Receives Student Water Research Grant to Study Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms

By Marcus Gay, NM WRRI Sr. Student Program Coordinator

Algae are a group of aquatic organisms that form the base of the aquatic food chain. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) occur when algae grow out of control in freshwater or marine environments producing toxins, dissolved oxygen depletion, and anoxic conditions. There have been reports of HABs causing harmful poisoning effects on animals, including mammals, birds, and aquatic life across the United States. These HABs can also cause kidney and liver toxicity, skin rashes, and respiratory problems in humans. HABs are occurring worldwide due to polluted water caused by human activities, revealing a need for effective technologies that help mitigate the effects of HABs and prevent future blooms.

The New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute has awarded a Student Water Research Grant to a graduate student at New Mexico State University (NMSU) to investigate this topic. Wijayalath Kodige Nimasha Lakshani Abeykoon, a master’s student in Environmental Engineering, is working on research focused on mitigating HABs using modified clay with her faculty advisor Dr. Yanyan Zhang.

The project, Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms Using Modified Clays, will use porous clays to adsorb and settle down algal cells. Abeykoon is working with clay because it is a naturally available material with no significant environmental impacts, making it an attractive solution for HAB mitigation. Abeykoon and her research team have modified the natural clays to enhance their adsorption properties. The project’s innovative method of using dialysis tubes with packed modified clay inside will recover phosphate (a main ingredient in developing HABs) from water bodies to avoid phosphate release from the sediments.

According to Abeykoon, the proposed solution for HAB mitigation is expected to control existing algal blooms in a water body by settling harmful algae and adsorbing algal toxins. This solution is also expected to prevent future blooms by precipitating phosphate in water. As Abeykoon explains, “Considering its low cost, regeneration potential, and eco-friendly properties, the proposed solution has the potential to be used for HAB control and prevention on a large scale.” Abeykoon presented this research at the 66th Annual New Mexico Water Conference in October, 2021.

Originally from Sri Lanka, Abeykoon earned her bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Peradeniya. She graduated in December with a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering at NMSU and will continue her research as a PhD student at NMSU’s Environmental Engineering department. Abeykoon will begin her PhD Program in the fall of 2022 and says she is “delighted to start this new chapter of my life.” Abeykoon adds, “I hope the knowledge, experience, and skills I gain through this chapter of my life will guide me to an academic and research career in [the] same field that I am wishing for.”