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Transforming wastewater into green gold

Thanks to Michael Cohen for sending me this note. Michael Cohen is a faculty @ Sonoma State Univ., and Catherine a biology student at the university.

From The Press Democrat – see oringial link

Algae-based fuel: Transforming wastewater into green gold

Global warming, war in the Middle East and – closer to home – millions of gallons of excess treated wastewater.

A potential common solution to these disparate problems lies in the capacity of algae to convert wastewater to fuel. Sounds fanciful, but with help from the sun, algae cultivated on our ever-growing supply of wastewater could satisfy our community’s demands for fuel that are currently met by imported gasoline and diesel.

Peoples of the future will marvel at our profligacy in dumping treated wastewater into natural waterways. Locally, we have already begun to find utility for this water through agricultural irrigation and by recharging of The Geysers for geothermal energy.

But perhaps its greatest beneficial use to society – as an algal growth medium – has yet to be exploited.Treated wastewater contains levels of nutrients that can support dense algal growth. Using the sun’s energy, algae convert carbon dioxide into biomass while removing excess nutrients from the water. Technology to cultivate and harvest large amounts of algae already exists as do the means to extract their lipids and process them into fuels that can power our cars and trucks (fossil fuels are after all mainly derived from dead algae – not dinosaurs).

Facilities for commercial production of algae-based fuels are now a reality: Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation has begun making biodiesel from algae in New Zealand, Biofuel Systems SL will start operations in Spain in 2007 and GreenFuel Technologies has just started a partnership with an energy company in New York.

Algae can also perform another valuable service: breaking down a variety of organic contaminants that survive other wastewater treatment processes.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 111 out of 139 streams sampled in 1999 and 2000 contained one or more organic wastewater contaminants, including human and veterinary drugs, natural and synthetic hormones, detergent metabolites, plasticizers, insecticides and fire retardants.

Last year toxicologists in Texas reported finding fluoxetine, the active ingredient in Prozac, in the brain, liver and muscle tissue of fish residing in a municipal effluent-dominated stream. The potential good news is that some algae can degrade some of these emerging contaminants.

Thus, long-term benefits of a Sonoma County program that used wastewater to “grow” biofuels would be environmental (cleaner water and lower carbon dioxide emissions) and economic (providing a reliable local source of fuel that doesn’t require entry into foreign lands).

The major difficulty in implementing this vision is not practical but political: algal-based fuels lack a powerful advocate. The city of Santa Rosa has shown foresight on energy issues. Perhaps the current pressure on the city to find ways to dispose of excess treated wastewater can serve as a catalyst for our community to trailblaze the way from oil- to algae-dependence.

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