BREVARD — The Oceanography Department at Florida Institute of Technology is no stranger to innovation and is certainly on the forefront of scientific breakthrough.

Of particular note this year is the work of assistant professor, Dr. Austin Fox, and graduate student, Abbey Gering. Their latest research project revolves around the humble bottle cap, thousands of them.

Bottle caps are left on the recyclable sidelines because they rarely get recycled. The caps are manufactured from a plastic that’s vastly different than that of the bottles. As such, the recycling process for each plastic is also different, and many cities aren’t equipped to process both.

While this is slowly changing with more recycling plants allowing for the retrieval of both caps and bottles, the caps lag far behind leaving millions of them discarded, adding to our environmental waste. That’s where Dr. Fox and Ms. Gering come in.

They’ve been working on improving the water quality in the Indian River Lagoon via aeration. Initial tests showed promise, but the duo wondered if they’d yield better results by promoting the growth of “good” bacteria.

“Good bacteria is able to convert the nitrogen in the water into gas, releasing it harmlessly into the atmosphere which is 78% nitrogen,”said Dr. Fox. Excess nitrogen in our waters is the culprit for the growth of toxic algal blooms which can lead to fish die-offs and can make people and animals sick.

“We tested a host of media to induce the growth of good bacteria, but we kept coming back to the bio-ball,” said Ms. Gering. A bio-ball offers a surface on which bacteria (microbes) can flourish in home aquariums. These balls worked great in the lab, but they’re plastic, porous, manmade, and costly.

“We wanted to provide a sustainable source that could do the job,” continued Dr. Fox, “and that’s when we came up with the idea of using discarded bottle caps because they, too, are plastic and provide bacteria the ideal environment to grow in, with the added benefit of sustainability.”

The project is not yet in the field because there’s much to contend with such as the degradation of the plastic plus various other aspects that must be analyzed, but the results are promising.

The bottle caps are collected and stored inside mesh bags. These bags are simply to contain the caps and make them easier to transport. They can also be strategically placed and moved, filtering the water in various locations under regulated conditions.

Which brings to mind, this doesn’t mean you can just throw bottle caps in our waters. Thoughtless littering further incapacitates our waterways. The cap-filled bags only work within monitored conditions.

“The big picture is we wouldn’t ever want to take a mesh bag into the lagoon and just leave it there,”said Dr. Fox. “Storms and surges could tear them, and we don’t want them to get into the environment.”

Still in its infancy, the project’s end-goal is to devise a system that can pump lagoon water through a 100% contained system.

The Indian River Lagoon provides an idyllic microcosm for testing, and if the experiment works, it’s great for Brevard County and hopeful for further global applications.

The reassuring work Dr. Fox and Ms. Gering are performing is already garnering interest from universities and companies across the country. The word is getting out and others in the field are interested in their findings.

Coastal water quality is a massive global problem, and everywhere on earth has a bottle cap issue. By collecting caps, the pair hope to encourage awareness, minimize discarded waste, and use them instead for these treatment systems. “We can build these water treatment systems at low cost and good benefit, with potential for global application,” asserted Dr. Fox.

If you’d like to play a role in the project, Ms. Gering will accept all bottle caps by mail at Florida Institute of Technology, OEMS Department, Attn: Bottlecaps, 150 W. University Blvd., Melbourne, FL 32901. They can also be dropped off at the Brevard Zoo and at the Sun Shoppe Café in Downtown Melbourne.

For more information, please contact Dr. Austin Fox at 321-674-7463, or email Ms. Abbey Gering at geringa2016@my.fit.edu.

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