Connecticut High School Oceanography Students Put An “Algae Reactor” To The Test


Educational projects are important to us at Marine Depot. We recently had an opportunity to follow a project at the E.O. Smith High School. E.O. Smith HS is a public school in rural Storrs, Connecticut and has about 1200 students. It also houses an active coral propagation farm and research project.

The E.O. Smith Coral Project was started 13 years ago as a way to teach students about corals, aquaculture and conservation in a hands on way. Many schools teach about corals, not many give the students the opportunity to meet them in person. Over the course of 13 years, the project has impacted 1000’s of students, in a number of ways. Biology students utilize the system to learn about cell energy, ecology, and evolution using the tanks as a living example of many of the concepts.  

Students in the Oceanography course, take a more active role in the program by helping to maintain the system and taking part in the propagation of the corals, learning about corals, coral biology, and coral reef ecology along the way. Many students choose to take part in independent studies with the program, giving up their study halls and free time to come in and work with the system in a more intensive manner. They learn the specifics of maintaining marine aquaria, the corals that we have, and eventually move on to develop their own research projects with our corals. The projects are then presented at the various science fairs in the area.  Examples of past projects can be seen at www.eosmithcoralproject.org.

A few weeks back, we sent the project an algae reactor from AquaMaxx.  The setup consisted of a Fluidized Reactor



…and an Accel Aquatics LED Strip Light to wrap around the reactor, turning it into an algae growth chamber. Water is pushed through the chamber by a small pump placed in the aquarium. The setup and installation of the unit was easy and getting it up and running only took about 15 minutes.


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“I was interested in two things regarding the reactor,” Instructor Jon Swanson said. “Its ability to help stabilize the pH of my system by running it off cycle with my lights and also its ability to grow algae as a nutrient export for the tank.  To test these two things, I set the system up on my frag system at the school. It consists of three 15 gallon tanks and a 40 gallon frag flat plumbed together with a 55 gallon sump. The tanks house a number of soft coral species and are lit with LED lighting.”



The pH in the frag tanks, a relatively “new” tank, fluctuates with the lighting cycle, as it does in most tanks. This is not true in the ocean, due mainly to the significant volume of water in the ocean. Photosynthesis within the tank, by the corals and algae, takes in CO2, to use in the production of carbohydrates, raising the pH of the tank. During the hours in the tank when the lights are on, this process outweighs the respiration that is also going on in their cells. At night, when photosynthesis is not occurring, the production of CO2 as a waste product from cellular respiration carried out by the corals and algae greatly outweighs its intake.  As a result, CO2 is released into the water, lowering the pH. The cycle continues as the lights go on and off as a part of the lighting cycle within the tank.    

The hope was that by setting up the reactor, filled growing algae, and running the lighting on a cycle opposite that of the main tank lighting, the class would be able to lower the swing in the pH on a daily basis and create a more stable environment.

To start with, they measured out 5 grams of Chateomorpha sp. as a starter colony in the reactor. The lighting cycle for the reactor was set so that it would turn on as soon as the main tank lighting turned off.



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The initial results of the experiment did not show a significant stabilization of the pH. They attributed this to the small amount of Chaetomorpha present in the reactor compared to the volume of the tanks (~140 gallons) and bio-load present. With only 5 grams of Chaetomorpha in the reactor, there was just not enough photosynthesis occurring to pull in enough of the CO2 to cause a detectable change.



As time went on, and as the Chaetomorpha continued to grow, Swanson expected to see a shift slowly happen with the pH swings decreasing over time. Unfortunately, the acrylic frag flat that was part of the system popped a seam one evening and had to be removed and repaired. In the process, the reactor was also removed and taken off the system until the tank could be added back into the system.

“Regarding the second point of interest with the algae reactor—its ability to successfully grow algae—the leaking tank gave me a chance to look at the data from this, although earlier than I would have hoped,” Swanson said. “The Chaetomorpha that was removed from the chamber after approximately three weeks of growth was almost 12 grams, representing a more than doubling of the mass from the initial colony. In regards to the ability of the AquaMaxx algae reactor to grow algae, I can say without a doubt it grows algae very well!”

Now that the tank is back into the system, the reactor has been added back into the system as well. The Chaetomorpha that was added this time was increased to 15 grams to start with (still a relatively small amount of the algae relative to the reactor size) in hopes of seeing a more significant pH stabilization effect.

We hope to get updates on this project as it comes along.

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About the Instructor

Jon Swanson M.S. has kept salt water aquariums for over 25 years, and reef aquariums for more than 20. He has a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Connecticut, did graduate work at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and has a master’s Degree in Plant Science from the University of Connecticut. Jon has taught Biology, Environmental Science, Oceanography during his 20+ years of teaching. He is the 2008 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching for the state of Connecticut and has been the recipient of numerous grants to develop unique teaching programs including a Toyota Tapestry Grant “Coral Farming, Saving the Reefs Through Aquaculture” the funding that jump started this project. He has been a speaker at a number of conferences, both aquarium and teaching related, offering his ideas on using reef aquariums as teaching tools. Along with his duties as a teacher, and supervising this project, Swanson also is the founder of, and faculty advisor to, the E. O. Smith Scuba Club. When he is not taking care of his reefs at home, or at the school, he is off swimming in the real reefs!

Do you know a school with a marine project in the works? We would love to hear about it.

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