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Algae fertilizer in development by ODU and NP
May 1, 2013
utrients PLUS (NP), a company headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Old Dominion University (ODU), in Norfolk, Virginia, have applied for a patent on recent discoveries they’ve made related to the use of algae in fertilizer products. John Moriarty, president of NP, and Patrick Hatcher, the ODU Batten Chair in Physical Sciences and director of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC), announced the submission of an application April 9 to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
While using algae as a nutrient source in the NP fertilizer sold under the Clarus brand, the parties made discoveries that improve the plant-growing properties of the fertilizer, as well as make it more environment-friendly. “Nutrients PLUS has an advantage over every national brand because no other fertilizers grow plants in this way, while also increasing global sustainability,” said Moriarty, who holds degrees in agronomy and forestry, and has worked for three decades in industries that promote environmental stewardship.
Last year, ODU entered a joint commercial venture with a subsidiary of NP involving research and development of algal components in fertilizers. NP is the nation’s largest supplier of commercial fertilizers made totally or partially of organic matter.
That 2012 agreement, between the Old Dominion University Research Foundation (ODURF) and NP Labs, a subsidiary of Nutrients PLUS, created a new company called Applied Algae Research Manufacturing and Marketing (AARMM). ODURF also is the university entity that signed the patent application.
NP began operations more than a decade ago supplying organic-content fertilizers to landscapers, and has since expanded its line to include products for gardeners and farmers. Organic material the company uses in its fertilizers ranges from ground-up chicken feathers to manure. Only recently has the company produced experimental batches containing algae.
Representatives of NP became interested several years ago in Hatcher and VCERC’s algal research program, which began in 2007. In 2011, at ODU’s Algal Farm near Hopewell, Va., the university joined with NP to oversee a corn crop experiment to test algae-fortified fertilizers.
Rows of corn were grown under test conditions using a variety of fertilizer formulas. “It was a bone fide agricultural trial experiment,” Hatcher said. “We grew the corn and then weighed the plants and the roots and the actual corn, and found that a blend of our (dried) algae and commercial fertilizer produced more biomass than commercial fertilizer alone.”
“Tests taken prior to planting indicated the soil was very unfertile,” said Moriarity. “The results are powerful indicators of algae’s effects on stimulating plant growth, with the single variable being the proportion of algae added to conventional fertilizer for enhanced performance compared with standard conventional fertilizer treatments alone.”
The one-acre pond at the ODU Algal Farm, the only facility of its kind on the East Coast, is capable of producing about 3,000 pounds of dried algae a year. Moriarty said analysis by his company has shown that surprisingly small amounts of dried algae can have beneficial effects when mixed with larger amounts of commercial fertilizer. “Fertilizer containing organic matter has tremendous benefits over traditional, synthetically made fertilizers,” he said. “The plant growth regulators we find in algae are known to be effective at low concentrations and are a real bonus.”
Fertilizers that include organic matter such as algae could be formulated with substantially less synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous, Moriarty said.
When nonorganic nutrients are washed off lawns and croplands in coastal Virginia, they have an adverse effect on water quality in rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, note the developers. Virginia is under a federal consent order currently to reduce nutrient pollution in its tidal tributaries and the bay.
The advantages of fertilizers containing algae “are greater than regular fertilizer alone because the corn plants received an added benefit from micronutrients and plant growth enhancers provided by the algae,” Hatcher said.
“Corn is the ideal crop to address the over application of nutrients by improving fertilizer efficiency because over 90 million acres are planted in the US annually,” said Moriarty. “In addition, corn utilizes more plant food nutrient than any other major world crop on a per acre basis. For Nutrients PLUS, the addition of algae and its positioning for agriculture is an exciting frontier for the company that is leading the way for beneficial use of natural ingredients.”