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Water Cleaner

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  • | 10:21 a.m. December 16, 2011
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  • Entrepreneurs
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Company. Hydrachar
Industry. Agriculture
Key. Entrepreneurs hold the key to some of Florida's most challenging environmental problems.

Match an entrepreneur with a scientist and you'll likely get a great business idea.

George Boynton, a successful Cape Coral boat builder, and Bruce Prezzavento, a Fort Myers chemist, have an idea to clean up Florida's rivers and canals: Grow water hyacinth in enclosed pens, harvest it and turn it into valuable fertilizer that can be sold for a premium.

Government regulators say it's possible. “Using water hyacinth to remove nutrients definitely works,” says Phil Flood, intergovernmental representative for the lower west coast area of the South Florida Water Management District. “Our technical folks have been speaking with them.”

While others have experimented with removing harmful nutrients from Florida's waterways using plants such as water hyacinth, Flood says what's unusual about Boynton and Prezzavento is that they're proposing to harvest the hyacinth, burn it and turn it into a high-grade fertilizer they can sell to farmers. “It's a business opportunity for them that could have positives for the environment,” Flood says.

But there are obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is raising money. A harvesting machine would cost $4 million to build and $3,000 a day to operate, Boynton estimates.

Other challenges include obtaining government permits to grow the hyacinth, which has long been considered an unwelcome exotic species in Florida. The entrepreneurs, who plan to call their company Hydrachar, are applying for $180,000 in government grants for a pilot program that would tell them, among other things, whether the hyacinth could grow fast enough for them to make money.

Because the hyacinth ash is a potent fertilizer, Boynton and Prezzavento estimate they can sell it for $1 to $1.50 per pound, or double the price of fertilizer on the market today.

Boynton and Prezzavento estimate they'd need to grow 500 acres of hyacinth to cleanse the river and make money, based on estimates of pollutants such as phosphorous currently flowing down the 67 miles of the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers from Lake Okeechobee.

If their plan works as they expect, water hyacinth could be used to clean up other waterways in Florida and other locations around the world. “There's room for 1,000 machines,” says Boynton.

Life on the river
A native of California, Boynton, 72, moved to Lee County in 1969 repairing boats ranging from small skiffs to shrimp boats. A customer persuaded him to build a boat and Shamrock Boats was born.

By the time he sold it to Westinghouse in 1988, Shamrock had built 3,000 fishing and pleasure boats ranging in size from 17 to 31 feet. By then, the company was notching sales of about $14 million a year through a network of 50 dealers in 30 states and five foreign countries. Shamrock was producing four boats a day in a 70,000-square-foot plant with 160 employees in Cape Coral.

Boynton sold the company because acquirers such as Westinghouse were consolidating the industry in the late 1980s. “It didn't look like the smaller companies were going to survive,” he says. “I did OK.”

Although Boynton is retired, he started another manufacturing business in Trenton, a small town in Gilchrist County near Gainesville, building a helicopters called the Mosquito. “Friendly town, friendly mayor, friendly zoning,” he says, explaining his choice of a location.

But while he was busy building Mosquito Aviation, Boynton remained perplexed by the declining fish and crab populations in the Caloosahatchee River. “We lived off that river in the 1970s,” he says, recalling the rich hauls of shrimp, crab, pompano and mullet.

These creatures thrived within and below the huge clumps of water hyacinth that floated down the river in the 1970s. “The water was clear and the fishing was great,” Boynton recalls.

Then, in 1973, the state declared the water hyacinth an invasive and exotic species from South America and initiated a plan to eradicate it, mostly with aerial spraying. No one was sad to see the hyacinth eradicated because it got hung in boat propellers and clogged farmers' water pumps. “The yankees didn't like looking at it,” Boynton chuckles.

Boynton says he gradually realized four years ago that there was a direct correlation between the eradication of water hyacinth and the decline in fish and crab populations in the river, because the hyacinth was their habitat. He says proof of that is evident because strict environmental regulations over the years haven't improved the fishing conditions.

Boynton talked it over with friend and business associate John Barth, a retired engineer who designed the largest tunnel-boring machine in the world. The two friends needed to recruit a scientist who might prove their ideas correct. “We were on the make for a chemist,” Boynton says.

In March, Boynton met Prezzavento at a meeting of the Edison Inventors Association, a group of inventors who meet regularly to discuss such challenges and share ideas. Prezzavento is a scientist with a Ph.D. in chemistry who runs a business-consulting firm in Fort Myers called Sibironics. Prezzavento agreed to test Boynton's theory and came to the same conclusions. “He made us get back in the swamp again,” Boynton says, whose son Jon is also involved in the effort. “He didn't take our word for nothing.”

The biochar mission
While water hyacinths do a great job of sucking phosphorus and other harmful nutrients from the water, Boynton and Prezzavento also were looking for ways to make it profitable beyond possible government subsidies for cleaning up the rivers and canals.

What they devised is a watercraft that harvests water hyacinths. It is equipped with a furnace that burns the plants into an ash-like material called biochar that is rich in nutrients. It's a process akin to transforming wood into charcoal. What's more, the burning hyacinth produces a gas that can be used to power the craft.

Because the biochar is rich in nutrients, farmers can spread it on their fields to increase crop yields and Prezzavento says they're willing to pay a premium because it doesn't run off like other fertilizers. Only a few fertilizers, such as chicken droppings, are more potent, he says.

Finding $4 million to build a watercraft such as the one they envision is one challenge. Another is determining how fast water hyacinth can grow in the Caloosahatchee River. Although water hyacinth grows five times faster than any terrestrial plant, it's important to know the exact growth rate to determine how often it can be harvested.

Permitting could prove to be tough. Environmental regulators may look askance at letting Hydrachar cultivate a water plant that they've been trying to eradicate for years. Boynton says that even if some hyacinth floated away, the plant dies as soon as it hits salt water at the mouth of the river.

There are natural challenges too. A weevil that eats water hyacinth is one predator and manatees can gobble 50 pounds a day.

To overcome these obstacles, Boynton and Prezzavento are seeking government grants totaling $180,000 to conduct a pilot test of the idea. “We could start production within six months if we had financial backing,” says Boynton.


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