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Reef Madness: Seaweed-Inspired Technology Throws a Life Preserver to Sea Life

It took billions of tiny polyps half a million years to build the world’s largest structure made by living creatures, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But much bigger organisms, humans, have spent the last half century bleaching and killing their work. “Water quality, and behind that climate change, are among the main factors which are having an impact on the health and resilience of the reef,” says Dr. Eva Abal, chief scientific officer the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

The GBR runs along 1,600 miles of Australia’s Queensland coast, covers 900 islands and 2,500 reefs plunging as deep as 6,500 feet, and includes more than 1,600 types of fish, 600 types of coral, 100 different kinds of jellyfish, and other sea life. Together, they form a unique ecosystem vital to the state’s environment and economy. But protecting it is a massive undertaking.

The coastal cities of Cairns and Townsville in northern Queensland have been doing their part. They are using advanced water filtration technology developed by GE Power & Water to treat 50 million gallons of wastewater and agricultural runoff per day. The system can catch particles of sediment, microbes and bacteria as small as 0.04 microns before they reach the reef.


Some 900 islands and 2,500 coral reefs form Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The technology, called ZeeWeed, is using special membranes punctured with thousands of tiny holes 400 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. The membranes move in the water like seaweed in the ocean. The perforations let water molecules through but capture sediments, pathogens, protozoa and bacteria.

“The water coming out of these plants doesn’t contain any solids, which further reduces the discharge of nutrients which endanger the reef, because these are often attached to solids,” said Chris Harpham, a regional technology leader for GE Power & Water. “This ZeeWeed water filtration process also removes the vast majority of the pathogens because they are too large to penetrate the membrane.”

Water filtration in both urban and rural areas will be key to preserving the Great Barrier Reef in the decades ahead.

“You can’t compartmentalize the threats and say ‘it’s just about climate change, or just about water quality,’ because all of these factors are having an impact,” Dr. Abal told GE Reports Australia.

“One thing we do know is that by reducing one threat we improve the likelihood that the reef will respond well in the face of other threats, protecting the reef by making it more resilient.”

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