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Naturally Improving Waterways With Dr Simon Tannock | PROACTIVE Podcast #124


Due to increasing levels of pollution in Australia, toxic algae is thriving in some of our nation's most relied-upon waterways. Dr Simon Tannock of AlgaEnviro sat down with Chris Hogan to discuss how natural solutions can help redress this issue.


Video Transcript:

Chris - Good day world, Chris Hogan coming to you for the Proactive Podcast episode 124. And I have with me today Dr. Simon Tannock, who is the co-founder and director of AlgaEnviro. With a master's degree in biotechnology of diatom algae cultivation and a PhD in wastewater treatment. Simon is well versed in algae and wastewater processes. AlgaEnviro manufacturers several products that work together to change water quality from poor to very high. The technology reduces nutrient levels and increases biodiversity within the water and the surrounding environment. By creating the conditions to allow water to heal itself is the best option. There's no need for glyphosate or other herbicides or toxic chemicals. The AlgaEnviro system is rebalancing the water chemistry so that nature can take over and remove polluting nutrients, get rid of toxic blue algae and remove large water weeds that choke the waterway. Thank you so much for joining me today, Simon.

Dr. Tannock - No worries, nice to be here. Thanks.

- Mate, it was actually I think your title and your description that just made me wanna reconnect with you. I know it was several years ago that we connected at a Myriad conference.

- Yes. And then you just led me to a beautiful new video that you created, which really explained quite well, what are these you do. But I just had to get you on because I mean, you're a man of true purpose. Who's really out there to, I guess, change the world. One fresh water Lake or pond at a time, I guess.

- Yeah, but we will include marine environments in there as well. We're not just fresh water, so we'll take on the sea if we're given the contract.

- Awesome. So I mean that description, I mean I've read it a few times now-

- And stayed awake, which is awesome.

- Thank you, can you tell me and tell the audience, I guess what is this diatom algae and how is it going to naturally repair the waterways?

- Sure. Can I be a little bit nerdy? I, would say diaton rather than diatom-

- Sorry.

- It's the way I've grown up, and most people I know say it. There are a few that do diatom but it just sounds wrong to me. It upsets my chakras. So our product is just a micronutrient fertiliser which will feed diatom algae. So we don't actually make or grow our diatoms within our system. We use the micronutrients to ensure that the diatom algae that are naturally in a waterway, in a lake, a dam, a river in the sea get the right food to grow. And the... I guess the issue or the problem is that we pollute a lot of areas with too much nitrogen and too much phosphorus. And just like you and I, diatoms need a good, healthy, balanced diet. They can't live on just nitrogen and just phosphorus. They need a bunch of other things as well. So if the water has a certain amount of micronutrients and then they get starved of those, they won't grow anymore. And that's when weeds and blue-green algae, which many of their species can be toxic. They can cause... They can kill dogs, they can cause illness in humans. There are now links to motor neurone diseases due to some of the toxins that are present or produced by these blue-green algae. So they're quite the concern. So if we can ensure that every morning when a diatom wakes up, there's the nitrogen and the phosphorus and everything else they need, then they'll be able to keep growing. The reason that's a cool idea to assist them with that is one, they grow faster than the lots of other algae and weeds and blue-green algae. Two, they are very good at improving water quality with extra oxygen and things like that. And three, rather than just growing lots and lots and lots of diatoms and swapping your hideous blue-green algae bloom with a hideous diatom bloom, diatoms generally fill up the base of the food chain. So whilst they're growing rapidly, lots of other animals are waking up in the morning and going, well that diatom is my breakfast, you know, thanks for that. And then they eat them. So now we're doing a big change under... Of the conditions that doesn't normally happen. We're now moving nitrogen and phosphate pollution into diatoms, into micro invertebrates and zooplankton and snails and larvae into the next layer of bigger ones and bigger and bigger. Until we end up growing more birds, more fish, more eels, more turtles in the ecosystem, with less pollution. So we're moving all that pollution into happiness and nature, which is where we would want it to be.

- Fantastic, I'm sure I'm not alone in becoming a... You know, a climate change activists, and I can thank David Attenborough, for educating me on this, you know, his latest documentary on Netflix really enlightened me. I've watched it three times and taken notes. It was amazing to me that basically his eye witness statement said things like, you know, we need to rewild the world and bring back biodiversity and get rid of monocultures.

- Mm-hmm.

- So what I understand, you know, your... Sorry, what's the name of the product again?

- Diatomics, which is simply, its a mix for diatoms. So we could spindle them.

- Beautiful. So what I understand diatomics to do is actually almost rewild the water. Bring back biodiversity and I think, you know lending some insights from David Attenborough. That, that is super important in helping us manage, I guess the increased carbon that we're producing. And, of course the pollutants that we're producing.

- Mm-hmm.

- You being a scientist, would have known this well before me. Is this what you're doing? Is this actually gonna help us with climate change on a, micro level?

- Oh, that's gonna take some unpacking. And I'm gonna try not to nerd out. So, it depends on which system we're dealing with I suppose. In that, climate change being increased CO2 from fossil fuels is a big one, and that's where it brought out, probably get all sorts of arguments if I said this in an industry or a scientific you know, audience. But if we address the nutrient levels in the sea and tried to increase diatom growth long-term in a very steady way, then there is some evidence in some research that says, yes, you might be able to. Because diatoms are generally heavier than water, so as they die, they sink. And then some of that has been shown to go into the greater depths. Equally, I think generally that idea has been abandoned because people are saying well, you know, it just doesn't happen. But I don't necessarily think that, that's been investigated enough. Like they've done experiments with iron, and said we threw iron into the sea, we saw a big algae bloom. But it didn't necessarily create the changes that we wanted. Equally I would push back and say, well you didn't necessarily get only diatoms to grow, there were green algae and all sorts of other colours and types of algae to grow and not all of those are heavy and sink, so maybe you needed to control that. And because our technology is specific to diatoms it's like the way we've done it, those micronutrients are only bioavailable to diatom algae. We can control what types of algae grows. So possibly, a broad answer would be, yes if we did some more work we could understand that it would work. But from my micro perspective of saying, can we improve this water body? Then... And I'm thinking on the run here I guess the answer to some degree, it's still yes. Because if we can increase the dissolved oxygen in water, we're not releasing as much methane because we're having the methane convert across or the conditions aren't suitable for methane to be made. The carbon has turned into CO2, which is used by diatoms and other algae, which is then eaten by animals. So the emissions coming off, say wastewater treatment plants could be reduced and then we're on that. When equally whilst other people are doing more about carbon release the fact that we could be improving, reducing nutrient pollution going to the sea which has been... Is causing these massive dead patches in the sea and massive algae blooms which are also causing all sorts of other biodiversity issues within the sea. So if we can do a lot of those steps the environment, biological environment is healthier and able to manage this more. Equally if we can get more plants nearby to waterways to be growing better, then they can take up more carbon and that will do it. So, as I said, there's a lot to unpack and I've only just touched on where we could go with that conversation.

- No, I really appreciate that. And look, I threw you in the deep end.

- Yeah absolutely you did. Thank you for that.

- I love it, thank you. I wouldn't ask smart people, hard questions if I didn't think he could answer them. So basically, the other problem that I saw in, you know, in my research was that, and David Attenborough's film was that, you know, by reducing the I guess the large animals, you know, especially sea animals. Large fish, over fishing stocks, we've created a problem as well. We've reduced the diversity, biodiversity of the oceans. And so what I understand from what you've said is that, by increasing the biodiversity in our waterways we're actually encouraging more, you know, wildlife you know, and therefore, you know, it's all part of the food chain, right? So if we fix it at this end, you know, that flows out, all rivers flow to the ocean and therefore there's more food out there for those animals. And therefore there's potential for greater survival rates of larger fish and larger sea animals. So I... That's how I understand also your product will be benefiting, you know, the environment and potentially combating climate change. So am I correct in that kind of assumption too, that sort of-

- Again, and really broad, let's not bog ourselves down on the specific, yes I'm very comfortable with that statement. There will always be a reason or a way or an opinion that says, no I don't like what, you know, Chris has just said. But as a holistic without, you know, boring the ass of the audience. Yes.

- Fantastic.

- I think that's a fair statement and I come back to the, you know, if we can have biodiversity and a healthy environment that's not, you know, overly polluted with the nutrients and things like that. And it's in balance, then it's far more able to do its ecological services then if not. Like wetlands, for example, are very good at soaking up nutrients and doing all of those things. But, you know, wetlands are so many different habitats doing so many different things. From breaking down organic matter all the way to being a fish nursery. And there's, you know, gazillions of little layers in between all of those. If it's sick, due to, you know, massive amounts of nitrogen coming in with a scumming algae layer which isn't leaving any light down it's of no use to anyone. So just making the environment healthy and letting them do their thing, we're already on a win, which is biodiversity.

- Fantastic. Simon what values did you portray to even want to have, I guess, this as your purpose. Like how did you, or when did you get started and in even this journey of creating AlgaEnviro and diatomics?

- I started off... I've always been a biology science type person. When I was four or five years old mom and dad used to struggle to get me out of the beach, off the beach or out of the rock pools and things like that to come home. Into my university years I initially wanted to be a forensic scientist but decided that there's too much lab nitty gritty for who I am. And then I did a master's degree through my work at the time in an agriculture company in diatom algae and discovered how awesome they are. At that point, I actually decided I wanted a bit of a break and I would take a left-hand down artists street, and moved my family my son and my wife to Australia from New Zealand, and studied opera at the Griffith Conservatorium in Brisbane. And it was through that, which was a wonderful experience. And I greatly enjoyed it. And I was really learning a lot about singing and things like that. But nearing the first year, I had two realisations. One, I was becoming intellectually bored because they weren't challenging science questions in my face on a regular basis. And secondly, whilst we absolutely need art to, you know, fulfil our lives, I was never gonna be one of the top 10 singers. I was gonna be a good singer who would get a few jobs probably, but not amazing. But I didn't want my grandchildren to ask, gramps what were you doing when climate change was happening? I didn't want the answer to be singing songs. So I left, and I went and did a PhD to do my bit to, you know, save us from the current trajectory.

- That's amazing, I'm sorry I interrupted there with a cackle.

- That's all right.

- That's a good motivation.

- It is, and, look I love what I do my work is not a job because I love what I do. I get up in the morning and think, right? You know, I've got a number of research trials, we're doing trials in soil at the moment. We're doing trials with a new product in a couple of different water bodies. Plus obviously we're contacting people and tryna make sales, cause we've gotta leave to buy, you know, selling products and changing waterways and stuff. But I love what I do, and there's always a bit of my brain ticking away going you know, what's next, or how do I make it better? Or what can we do? Or what problem waters is that we can currently solve? Can we fix? And that's what this new product is where I believe it will be, you know, substantially better for a number of areas where we've struggled based on the water chemistry of different sites.

- You said that it was four to five years old that you, I guess, you discovered a passion for this. Was there somebody in your life at the moment, at that time that I guess inspired you, or?

- No, not really. My dad is an aeronautical engineer so he certainly created the questioning in me. And also... And the fact that he travelled, you know, overseas a few times a year for his job he also managed to come back with, you know the latest Lego sets. So the inventors of Lego can take claim, cause that created that innovation, invention, wanting to build with my hands part of my brain. But no aside from that, just the life and what was out there and lifting rocks and looking for slizers and worms. And they were also my guide and what's strange and small and yucky for some, is awesome to me.

- Yeah, great. Would you say some of the value sets of your father you know, are similar to what you hold dear today?

- Yeah, he well... He, I mean, integrity and honesty are major for him, which are also very important for me but it's, I guess along the line, along the way I've had a few like biology teachers and things like that. And the tramping club and stuff where, you know we respect the environment and we'll just learning from it and things like that so, yeah.

- Great, and who would you say your heroes are today, that inspire you?

- Oh.

- Celebrity heroes maybe?

- Yeah, no. See, I'm not big on celebrities being seen-

- No, it's fine.

- You know, to be revered. People who are doing good in the environment and doing they're... Like very early on, I thought Google was great because, you know... Their driving seemed to be about you know, doing no harm or doing great things. I think they've become a money machine now but back then, I liked that they were trying to bring knowledge to people. And that was their initial drive or that's what I took as their message. But certainly David Bellamy... David Bellamy? Yeah, David Bellamy. And then I guess there aren't really, Neil deGrasse Tyson. And a lot of those scientists who are bringing science to the people. But certainly in algae world, there's no key algae person that's, you know of note that sort of kinda drives me.

- Well, you certainly can be the hero of your own story then on that regard. So well done. Well done. And what would... Have you articulated your purpose at all? Like life purpose or even business purpose at all? Have you-

- Probably not. I mean, when we started AlgaEnviro, we developed the technology. We were aware of some other technology that was similar. We sort of blended, reached out to them tried to work with them, developed an understanding. They really didn't know what they were talking about and it was frustrating to try and work with them. So we moved on and then just thought, this is gonna be a little bit of pocket money whilst now I'm... Excuse me, whilst I'm working as a consultant in algae as well and algae production. Cause at the time the biofuels from algae thing was really starting to kick off and we were... I was picking up quite a bit of work for you know, design and consulting in that area. And quite early on, we had some really major wins on some pretty toxic sites. And word of mouth just kept coming and we'd go, oh we, you know. We had one client who presented us as, one of the cheapest chemicals we buy and probably one of the most effective and you know, that's very nice coming from industry. Sitting in an industry forum, that makes people pay attention. So that, we kind of ended up just having to put any consulting to the side because our invitors kept growing and growing. And then we realised things like, one of our clients said, you know we love the product, we love it, everything it did but to send somebody down three times a week to dose the product is really annoying and it takes too much time. And I said, oh, we've got a dosing machine that will do it automatically, every day. They said, oh, well send us a quote for that. And we walked out of the meeting and my business partner said, we've got a dosing machine? And I said, we will by Monday.

- Beautiful.

- Yes, so it was just a matter of figuring out, you know, what's it gonna cost and how are we gonna put it together? And what's it gonna be made of? But, you know, that's been there and that unit has sort of developed and then we have floating ones as well. We also have another product which helps to bring greater biodiversity to a site that is a very engineered, basically tank. And doesn't... Biology doesn't love it, we have a, what we call a biofilm floating habitat. Which is a bit like submerging a coral reef, although it's not made of coral. But an area where life can go in and live, in what is otherwise just a tank of water. So as to allow the biology to come in and land safely, lay eggs, grow, breed and create all these biological outcomes that we want in what is otherwise a very inhospitable environment.

- Fantastic. So what excites you now about the work that you do?

- Right now, as I mentioned, the new product that we're developing it has me very excited because we are just on that very early part of that journey, but the work we've done so far it would appear to reduce not only the blue-green algae count but also the suspended algae count, which for companies particularly rural water and drinking water suppliers. They don't want suspended algae and other things blocking up their filters. So if we can treat their water to fantastic quality whilst not blocking their filters, they're gonna be very excited by that. Aquaculture, we've done some trials but their water generally is very low in silica which is something that diatoms need. And we've developed this new product also brings its own silica on the journey. So you don't need the supplement, which means that from the work we've done already and the modelling. We think that we can improve like shrimp productivity with a four to one return on investment in our by increased number of animals at the farm gate. So if they're spending $4,000 of product and getting $20,000 more prawns out at the end of the season, you know, happy days. So those are the things that excite me, and I'm sure once this settles down and we have a better understanding then something in the back will go, Oh, what about this? And I'll be off again.

- Fantastic, so you're an inventor. Really, you're an inventor.

- Yes.

- I'm amazed by people like you, to be able to invent actual products that benefit people in the way that yours does and you're solving a huge problem.

- Hmm, it really it's... There are... In engineering and science, particularly in engineering they have things called wicked problems. Which are those ones that are so widespread or so seemingly unfixable that people would just, you just... They're called wicked problems cause we just don't know how we could fix them. Climate change isn't one of those because we know the problem, we have all the technologies for the solution. It's just the political and very high, sort of, and I might be wrong, and this is my take on it. The very, very rich, a lot of which has come from fossil fuel money, in some way have just sold their soul and their love of human beings and swapped it for the love of a dollar. And there have been so many people and papers and models that show that if we just went right, climate change we're gonna nail carbon by 2030. We could do it if... I mean look what we did with coronavirus, not every country but certainly Australia, certainly New Zealand. If you want to address a major problem, you can do it. And, coronavirus virus is actually a lovely little model of climate change. We knew what was causing it, we knew what the solutions were. We created it and we stopped the whole world and said, behave. This is how we're gonna do it. And what reason not to do that with climate change, other than there's a few people with a bunch of money and political wealth who just don't wanna do that?

- Yeah well, the people have spoken mate, and it's the return of the 1960s sentiment power to the people. Where, you know, they are actually voting with their wallets and saying, well you know what, we're changing the world on our own. If the government won't do it, we will. And be honest, it's not really the governments of the world who are responsible for societal problems, solving societal problems. It's actually-

- No-

- It's society.

- Politicians follow through where the votes are.

- Society solve the problems.

- Yeah, no I... Whilst I think that politicians that allow certain companies to feed their desire for more oil and more plastic and things like that, it's simply gonna be a matter of, as you said, that people just have to say, no more single use plastics, and, you know, we're gonna support these people who come up with these cool ideas for, you know, more glass, more metal, more paper compostable et cetera and just support them and realise that if we don't we're...

- There's some wicked problems worth solving. So I mean, how do people stay across the work that you're doing and maybe even help you, you know, make this change in the world happen faster?

- There's an internal wicked problem. We don't have a huge social media presence simply because we are busy doing what we do. The majority, we actually... I've got a friend down in Brisbane who went to San Fran and did the big social media thing and decided that maybe the States and all that wasn't for him. But he's got a very successful social media company in Brisbane. And he said, I've put, you know, many clients onto him. And he said I'm gonna, you know, I wanna return the favour. Let's, you know, give you a presence. And so he did a whole lot of reviews and looked at it, and he said, people just aren't looking for wastewater, you know, treatment solutions on Facebook or on Twitter. So, we don't see there's a major point for us to push our social media presence in that way. We do now, do a garden product, a garden pond product, simply because we got asked so often we were just like, oh, we just gonna have to do it because the demand is there. So in that way, but I guess we... Because we are basically working with councils and utilities, agriculture it's... I mean I'd be happy to be given a solution but I don't know that there's a power to the people or social media way to push for, getting more awareness you know, from people to make those companies aware. Maybe there is, I guess it would be as, for example where there's a blue-green algae bloom in an environment and people can't use the water and they discover well, you know, there's the solution. Please go and investigate that, and push from that point of view. You know, I've seen sites that get closed down over Australia day, over Easter, over Anzac, or because there's a blue-green algae bloom, the water's toxic. Please stay away from this tourist area and this lake and they're going, you know, that's $900,000 for that weekend we lost. And there's another 1/2 a million for the weekend for that, you know and for the community, money coming in benevolence. So I reckon I could fix it for 70, 80, 90 $100,000 for the year and we can... But we can't get in there because various authorities are you can't treat this water, it's our water, stay away. And so that's a frustration, but you know, we just have to respect that, that's what they'll do, or what they want.

- But you do have clients, you do-

- [Simon] Yeah.

- I mean, who are they now? Who are those clients now?

- Bundaberg Regional Council that were based in Bundaberg were recently moved up here. Unitywater in Sunshine Coast. Logan City Council, up north Townsville City Council. There's some agriculture people up there, water corporation and WOA which does, they do all of WOA for waste water, Golden Valley water. So there's little pockets where, you know where we've done things and then they present the... The good thing about utilities is they have these little get togethers locally and they say, what worked for you? And we'd often get a mention and then we pick up another client, and another client from there. But generally we've been going to the industry conferences and you know, saying this is what we do and these are our before and afters. And they say, oh yeah, we'll give it a trial and do this and then move forward and then move to another site and another site. So, you know, that's normally the way. And obviously with COVID, a lot of those industry conferences have disappeared or gone online. So it is a little bit harder.

- Okay. I feel your pain and look I believe we have a solution for those problems and that it is all about creating educational content or-

- Mm-hmm.

- [Chris Hogan] And distributing it consistently, constantly all of the time, you know? And, I look, that's an expensive exercise for some. So... Look I do know there is a solution out there and as long as you keep producing that content, and distributing it I'm sure that more and more people will wake up to the problem and that there is a solution. And I hope that this video and podcast episode actually does help you, I think it's a fantastic cause. So well done, Simon.

- Thank you and likewise, cheers mate.

- Yeah. Thank you so much for your time mate. How do people follow what you're doing? And I know you had a beautiful video shot up there in Bundaberg just recently, really does articulate both the problem and the solution very well. So what's the website?

- So it's AlgaEnviro, so A-L-G-A-E-N-V-I-R-O so just We have a fairly inactive Twitter feed and... But otherwise just touch base with me on LinkedIn. I'm on there daily, so Simon Tannock, PhD, and you know, start a chat more than happy to talk to anyone. I can... I've managed to, hope not bore you but I can bore the pants off anyone talking about algae for many hours, quite happily.

- [Chris Hogan] But a-

- But we're basically, you know, I think our drive is that we are a drop-in solution to a lot of problems. So you don't need massive amounts of engineering. If you've got a biological algal bloom growing in the site biology obviously loves it. It's just a matter of let's put this in and see biology back to biodiversity health and the outcomes that, that treatment system was designed for. That's kind of why I think what we do is really, really exciting.

- Excellent. Thanks once again Simon I really appreciate your time.

- No worries, thank you.

- And thank you to you, all of you who watch and listen to our proactive podcast. It's available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and you can also get it on the website and of course, YouTube, look up memedia there and there's plenty of episodes for you to watch. Thanks once again, to all of you who listen, it's your encouragement and your support that sheerly by comments that keeps this podcast going. And I absolutely love sharing great stories from purpose led people like Simon on our proactive podcast. Take care, and we'll see you next time. Cheers.



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