Thursday, February 18, 2010

Algae Wastewater Treatment Development

Half a year ago I was looking around for larger projects making fuel oil from algae. As you can see from reading my entries on energy, there are plenty of small-scale demonstration facilities, but none big enough to show that algae can really make an impact on the world's fuel supply,

But here is another step toward practical utilization of algae for fuel. The city of Hopewell, VA has started cleaning nitrogen from its wastewater using algae in a demonstration facility. Formerly, nitrogen had not been targeted by the town's wastewater treatment, and the Chesapeake Bay, into which drains the wastewater from Hopewell and the rest of the greater Richmond area, has been notorious for its algae blooms. If this test, which is planned to run through September, is successful, then Hopewell hopes to enlarge the facility and sell the fuel oil grown in the algae. This project was made possible, in part, by stimulus package money.

Watching the video of the project, I see a lot of churning of water in open ponds. Origin Oil says that stirring the water causes the algae to grow more slowly; and in open ponds, specialized genetic strains that produce oil the fastest may not survive. So, I'm not sure Hopewell has implemented the best algae growing facility here. But, what they have implemented might be viewed as an inexpensive first-step. Perhaps they can install better facilities if they scale up. I think they should enter a partnership with Origin Oil, which has publicized an algae wastewater treatment model (that's a pdf).

I suppose the biggest source of algae in the Chesapeake Bay is agricultural runoff, and this would not be treated by any municipal wastewater treatment facility. But still, if the cities can remove their own contribution of nitrogen to the bay while offsetting costs by selling the fuel, then what's not to like?


Glenn Cassidy said...

The cost does not look very favorable here. $650K to treat 100K gallons per day. If that's scaled up to the 30M gallons per day of total sewage, the cost would be $195M. It's not clear how long a period of service is provided by that $650K. It's also possible economies of scale could reduce that $195M some. The town says standard methods of N removal would need a $90M investment (plus whatever operating costs there may be). It's difficult to compare these numbers with incomplete and differing information.

As for growing conditions, if they are in an open pond, then the GM algae will be competing with wild algae. If the wild algae have a competitive advantage under still water conditions and the GM under different conditions (such as churning), then it's possible there could be a net gain in oil production by churning the water. Then that net gain would have to be compared against the cost of churning.

Elrond Hubbard said...

Glenn, thanks for your comment. I'd be interested to hear what you think of Origin Oil's wastewater treatment model linked in this posting.