From wastewater treatment to the latest footwear: Algae solves problems

Algae doesn’t make the world go round. But researchers across the globe certainly have high hopes for it.

For more than thirty years, researchers have pinned their hopes on developing a strain that could produce a cost-efficient biofuel. But with oil prices so low, the cost of algae fuel would have to drop precipitously for that to happen.

Though fuels might be a long way off (and we say might because there are recent reports of breakthroughs in this area), algae cultivation is now used for a number of different purposes. These applications, from bioplastics to waste recycling to nutraceuticals, have helped the algae industry build the product ecosystem and expertise it needs until a breakthrough is made.

Members of the SCHOTT team recently attended the Algae Biomass Summit, and what we saw was amazing.

South Davis Sewer District (SDSD) South PlantOne application served as a centerpiece of the show – The South Davis Sewer District (SDSD) South Plant where SCHOTT partner Clearas Water is installing its Advanced Biological Nutrient Recovery (ANBR) system using SCHOTT DURAN glass tubes. The SDWTP hosted a tour of around 120 people during the Summit to show off its latest advancement.

The SDWTP purchased the photobioreactor to help limit the amount of phosphates and nitrates discharged into local waterways. Both had been flagged as helping to generate potentially toxic algae blooms that harmed local waterways and put a damper on tourism.

The project marks the first commercial installation of ANBR technology in the U.S. and it is already on track to sell algae biomass for 50 percent more than its break-even target. That is fantastic news for two reasons.

Traditional wastewater treatment plants remove nitrates and phosphates by adding chemicals to the water that cause the nitrates and phosphates to settle into the bottom of tanks, where they form large “cakes.” Treatment plants typically have to pay to dispose of these cakes. But the ANBR system allows South Davis to turn a cost center into a profit center. In this case, SDWTP biomass can be used to create an algae foam that is used to make running shoes. And unlike traditional plastics, bioplastics are highly biodegradable, another win for the environment.

Second, it shows the feasibility of using glass tubes to construct photobioreactors. While glass photobioreactors tend to have higher upfront costs, they have an expected lifetime of 50 years. Plastics, however, tend to scratch, which makes them difficult to clean, and they solarize over time, meaning they get darker, preventing light from reaching algae that need it for photosynthesis.

One of the things we’ve noticed is that the industry is now looking hard at the total cost of ownership of a photobioreactor, including the costs of replacing old systems. Glass, it turns out, compares extremely favorably.

What we’re seeing now in the industry is decades of concerted research, initially aimed at finding ways to make fuel, but yielding results across a range of industries. Algae production is helping to clean water, and could soon help reduce our dependence on traditional plastics. One day soon, you may have a pair of running shoes made of algae. The future is green.

November 30, 2017


Suzann Erben
SCHOTT North America, Inc.