Wastewater Algae A Possible Biofuel?

Using microalgae grown in wastewater, researches at the Rochester Institute of Technology believe they have found a promising biofuel that is more sustainable than corn or soy based biofuels. Associate professor of biological sciences, Jeff Lodge, and master’s degree student Eric Lannan have worked together to increase their original experiment using 30 gallons of wastewater to a 100 gallon system advised by Dr. Ali Ogut. And this spring, the team of researches hopes to partner with the Irondequoit Wastewater Treatment Plant to create a 1,000 gallon testing sample.

Lannan was studying biofuels when he and chemistry student Emily Young worked in Lodge’s lab to extract and isolate lipids, or fats, from the algae they were growing. They found that tiny amounts of biodiesel were being produced as well. As an added bonus, the algae grown in the wastewater reduces harmful elements, removing ammonia, nitrate, and phosphate from the water. With those elements removed, the cleaned wastewater can be channeled to treatment plans and finally back into larger bodies of water.

Photo by A. Sue Weisler via RIT.edu

Faster, cheaper, and simpler than other sources of biofuel, algae has a great potential to be the foundation of some forms of renewable energy. The R.I.T. researches have been growing Scenedesmus, a single-celled organism that can be batched, grown, and ready in only seven days. The algae is found all over North America and more buoyant that other types of algae, making it easier to collect sunlight for photosynthesis.

Algae has been a topic of many green discussions as it has a variety of potential uses, most notably as a way to clean smokestacks. Like all biofuels, however, algae based fuel does not work in colder temperatures. Still, Lannan has hopes for the organism as well, suggesting his project, if implemented correctly, could someday offset 50% of gas use for diesel vehicles.

Aaron Colter is a freelance writer and marketing consultant in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Purdue University, he has worked for the NCAA, Dark Horse Comics, Willamette Week, AOL, The Huffington Post, Top Shelf Productions, DigitalTrends, theMIX agency, SuicideGirls, EarthTechling, d'Errico Studios and others. He is also the co-founder of BananaStandMedia.com, a free record label, recording studio, and distribution service for independent musicians.