To help track the harmful algae bloom, Pixa, along with WHOI engineer Kevin Manganini and advisor, Associate Scientist and Chief Scientist for Deep Submergence Anna Michel, designed a drifter to float with sargassum on ocean currents. Working with scientists from the University of Puerto Rico, Pixa dropped the drifter into a sargassum patch measuring 40 feet (12 meters) wide and two miles (3.2 kilometers) long off the island’s southwestern coast. They watched the GPS track, pinging reliably every 10 minutes, as it floated northward and through the Mona Passage dividing Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. Then, nine days and 155 miles (250 km) later, it stopped pinging.
“I was floored when I got the call,” Pixa remembers. “It was a relief, but it was also mind blowing that it was another MIT student contacting me.”
The fishermen that found Pixa’s drifter were working for SOS Carbon, a start-up co-founded by Andrés Bisonó León, a Dominican native and graduate student at MIT’s Sloan School of Business. With his background in mechanical engineering, Bisonó León is hoping to turn the sargassum problem into a solution for sequestering carbon. The company employs local fishermen to collect sargassum with a system they’ve developed and bring it back onshore for eventual processing into fertilizer or materials that can be used in cosmetics. Another idea is to pump the sargassum to a critical depth so it will sink deeper into the ocean. There, it may be consumed by fish and other animals–and the carbon it contains will eventually be stored in seafloor sediments.
A few months after its discovery, Bisonó León returned the drifter to Pixa in Cambridge. The chance encounter led to plans to hold a “sargassum stakeholder” meeting that will bring scientists and entrepreneurs together to tackle the issue.
“This is a huge crisis and we need all hands on deck,” says Bisonó León. “If we can collaborate to understand where the sargassum is coming from, we can optimize operations and ensure further capacity down the line. This synergy can propel our common mission to transform the sargassum problem into a solution.”