Updated 11 months ago
“The technology is sound. The biology is sound.” — Margaret Palmer, HydroMentia president [Photo: Eileen Escarda]
Ocala-based HydroMentia wants to play a role in cleaning up the Everglades. The good news for the company is that its pilot water treatment project north of Lake Okeechobee has been able to remove more than 800 pounds of phosphorus per acre, almost 80 times as much as the treatment in the wetlands south of the lake, according to the company. The bad news is that HydroMentia hasn’t been able to duplicate that success nearby at its full-scale Taylor Creek Algal Turf Scrubber project. “The technology is sound. The biology is sound,” says Margaret Palmer, HydroMentia’s president.
Palmer believes that it’s likely that a herbicide in the water, perhaps from nearby citrus groves, is reducing the effectiveness of the Taylor Creek project. So far, the South Florida Water Management District is standing behind the project, renewing its support for a third year and adding $300,000 to help the company investigate the problem.
Harvested algae at HydroMentia’s Taylor Creek Algal Turf Scrubber project
HydroMentia’s water treatment process is based on research by Smithsonian Institution scientist Walter Adey. Polluted water is pumped into a polyethylene-lined, inclined floway, or pool, covered with a grid. Water is pushed through the floway in waves. Both the pulsing water and the grid encourage algae growth. The algae grows by drawing on phosphorus and nitrogen — nutrients that pollute the water. The mass of algae, called algal turf, is scooped up, or harvested, every seven to 21 days depending on the season. The water that comes out of the floway is designed to have lower concentrations of the harmful nutrients.
A bonus for HydroMentia is that the algae byproduct has a variety of uses. “Algae as a biofuel is becoming a very hot topic,” says Palmer, adding that the company also markets it as livestock feed and organic fertilizer.
The company recently stepped up development of both pilot and full-scale projects. In addition to the Taylor Creek operation in Okeechobee County, the company’s Egret Marsh project is under construction in Indian River County. In other parts of Florida, there are pilot projects in Lee, Orange and Alachua counties, and the company is working with Adey and the Smithsonian Institution on pilot projects on the Susquehanna and Illinois rivers.
Much of the research so far has focused on the southern U.S., but Palmer says, “We don’t think it’s limited to tropical climates.”
Palmer’s father, Whitfield Palmer, and Donald Panoz started HydroMentia a decade ago. They got some help with funding from the elder Palmer’s high-profile friend, the late actor and edibles entrepreneur Paul Newman. Newman’s family is still a shareholder, but one of Margaret Palmer’s focuses this year is raising enough money to expand to federal projects outside the state, particularly on the Mississippi River. She’s hoping to raise $10 million.