Sewage-eating algae used to treat wastewater in test project

Cal Poly launches pilot program in which algae feed on pollutants to clean wastewater

dsneed@thetribunenews.comJanuary 25, 2012 

Cal Poly and the city of San Luis Obispo on Monday unveiled a pilot project to test the viability of using algae to treat wastewater.

The project at San Luis Obispo’s sewage treatment plant on Prado Road has been under construction for the past year and a half. It consists of nine algae-rich ponds that circulate wastewater.

Fueled by sunlight, the algae feed on pollutants in the wastewater. This results in cleaner water and an increased volume of oil-rich algae that can be converted to products such as liquid biofuel or fertilizer, said Tryg Lundquist, Cal Poly professor in charge of the project.

The project is funded by a $250,000 grant from the California Energy Commission. Seven Cal Poly faculty members and more than two dozen students are using the project to conduct research on algae production, greenhouse gas reduction and the economics of converting the waste.

The city’s contribution to the project is allowing the use of about a half-acre of land at the treatment plant and supplying electricity to power the paddle wheels that circulate the water, as well as other equipment, said Howard Brewen, treatment plant manager.

Cal Poly has been researching the use of algae since 2006. The project is called Reclamation of Nutrients, Energy and Water, or RNEW.

If successful, algae ponds similar to these could replace conventional wastewater treatment in areas with favorable climates and adequate land. Because the ponds would cover many acres, an ideal location would be an area with plenty of sunlight and inexpensive land prices, Lundquist said.

In addition to Cal Poly and the city, several private companies and the U.S. Office of Naval Research are involved. Private companies involved include MicroBio Engineering, Phitec LLC and Livefuels Inc.

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