With the exponential growth of human population around the world, the environment has been going through detrimental changes that will have lasting effects for many generations. Dwindling fossil fuel sources, an ever-expanding carbon emissions footprint, and the large volumes of waste byproducts has made a significant impact on the ecology. New research is currently being undertaken to solve these challenges using a single-celled organism called microalgae to improve sewage treatment and increase biofuel production.
Dr. Lorenza Ferro, PhD of Umea University, Sweden’s fifth largest university, concluded in her thesis entitled “Wastewater Treatment and Biomass Generation by Nordic microalgae” that specific microalgae, when grown under controlled conditions, could provide a viable and sustainable source of biofuel feedstock. She also stated that wastewater can be used to grow these microalgae using the rich stores of phosphorus and nitrogen. They can also help remove heavy metal and other toxic molecules found in the wastewater to improve sewage treatment.
Ferro argues that microalgae can replace corn, sugarcane, wheat and soybeans in biofuel production, because not only can microalgae grow quickly, but it can do so regardless of the season. Microalgae can also store up to 15x more biomass material compared to the other food crops. This allows us to preserve our food supplies and represents a more efficient way to harvest biomass for conversion into ethanol. Given that 87% of carbon emissions come from fossil fuels, the implications of these findings are far reaching in terms of sustainable fuel source development.
Since microalgae are found mostly in freshwater marine environments and can be grown in sewage treatment plants, the need for arable land is unnecessary and contributes to the reduction of forest to farmland conversions. Land conversion is a significant contributor to the release of carbon into the atmosphere, accounting for 9% of the total man-made carbon footprint.
In addition, the microalgae brings with it the side benefit of the ability to absorb harmful compounds found in wastewater, to a degree superior to physical or chemical processes currently in use, resulting in high biomass and lipid production.
Although Ferro’s study focused specifically on Nordic microalgae, which were subjected to a varying range of conditions, from optimal to sub-optimal, it is proving to garner superior results compared to non-Nordic strains of microalgae.
Outside of Ferro’s study, algae advocates cite further benefits to algae with regard to fuel, carbon emissions control and other applications. Seaweed, for example, can be pelletized and used for power plant fuel in lieu of coal. The existing algae in our oceans can offset 40% of the world’s carbon by absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen in its place. Algae, with its high protein and oil content finds its way into animal feeds, dietary supplements, and even cosmetics.
Microalgae has shown that the world’s most complicated problems could potentially be solved by a simple, single-celled organism. That, combined with the near limitless resource of wastewater and sewage, could turn the tide in helping the environment recover from the damage brought about by human activities. It is this kind of sustainable development that Ferro and her associates hope to unlock in the not-too-distant future.
If you are a municipality in Ontario and in need of a biosolids management solution, please feel free to contact us at 1 (877) 479-1388.