Forget Algae Coproducts, Think Algae Coservice

California researchers aim to recycle nutrients, energy and water with algae
By Luke Geiver | August 16, 2011

In the algae industry, biofuels and coproducts such as animal feed are equally responsible for profitability. Tryg Lundquist, assistant professor, wastewater expert and algae researcher at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, agrees. He is leading a team of researchers on a project funded by the California Energy Commission that will focus on algae, wastewater treatment and, biofuels, but not coproducts per se. With $692,000 in funding from the state and private partners, he will instead work to generate additional revenue through a coservice.

His project on recycling nutrients, energy and water, trademarked RNEW, will attempt to “completely wring all the value out of wastewater,” Lundquist says, using an open-pond algae-based system. The mention of wastewater treatment and algae in the same sentence is certainly not new, Lundquist says, as wastewater and algae research and use has been happening since the 1950s. But, he says  the possibilities for new methods of treatment involving algae—and more importantly, the state of the wastewater infrastructure across the U.S., from his perspective—and the RNEW project seems deserving and worthy of any new attention.

“Wastewater treatment is not inexpensive and there is a lot of demand for it,” he says. It is something people will pay for, and is “something they are required by law to do.” The main infrastructure currently operating in the U.S. was established in the 1970s and '80s he says, most of which was based on federal, grants that today are not as readily available as they once were. And low-interest loans offered by most communities to build new facilities are also being cut. “There is going to be less money available for these communities to build their wastewater plants.”

Not only has the money for new construction become scarce, but many of the facilities built 30 years ago are rapidly reaching the end. As Lundquist explains, there are three basic types of wastewater facilities: electromechanical plants, pond-based oxidation systems and the most popular, activated sludge. The electromechanical system typically requires a high volume of concrete, steel and electric motors. In some setups the wastewater is trickled over a substrate that requires energy to move up over the substrates (rocks). These systems are vulnerable to concrete and rebar erosion and will typically only last 20 to 30 years.

The oxidation systems typically used in small communities are based on a deep earthen basin system and can last up to 50 years, but, Lundquist says, “They were only good for what we call secondary treatment,” or the removal of organic solids. Over time, sludge accumulates and they need to be upgraded. And then there is the activated sludge system that uses blower motors to send bubbles into the water, essentially creating bacteria to purify the wastewater, which also is vulnerable to concrete breaks and steel erosion.

The RNEW system will be an open-pond, multi-culture algae system. Lundquist says his team will have access to 5-acre testing ponds, and it will try a new zooplankton control method. If they achieve their true goals, they will meet the lipid productivity levels achieved in conditions suited for biofuels productions.

—Luke Geiver

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