--> Openlink Vol 23 Issue 1 (March 2014)<!--The 'win-win-win' integrated algal technology for wastewater remediation, carbon capture and energy production--> | Hong Kong Metropolitan University
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  •  Openlink Vol 23 Issue 1 (March 2014)
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    The 'win-win-win' integrated algal technology for wastewater remediation, carbon capture and energy production
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    The ‘win-win-win’ integrated
    algal technology for wastewater remediation,
    carbon capture and energy production

    Algal blooms, generally known as ‘red tides’, are on the one hand an ecological disaster that kills a large number of fish, and on the other a win-win-win opportunity that is associated with better wastewater treatment, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and biofuel production.

    Using microalgae for fuel production

    While the use of petroleum-sourced fuels is recognized as being unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly, the use of biofuel — fuel generated from biological materials — is a potential renewable energy alternative. However, biofuel from oilseed crops, and plant and animal materials would lead to a competition between energy and food production. In recent years, numerous studies have suggested that microalgae have a very high potential to serve as rich and untapped resources for a wide range of commercial, environmental, pharmaceutical, food and fuel applications. Particularly, microalgae bear a much higher unit area oil yield than terrestrial oilseed crops, and have been regarded as the most appropriate source for biofuel production.

    Microalgae, also referred to as phytoplankton, are single-celled photosynthetic organisms usually found in both freshwater and marine environments. Although as a group microalgae have been studied extensively, most individual species are still largely unexplored and their potential uses remain to be discovered. Of the tens of thousands of microalgae species known to exist, only a few hundred have been studied, and only a few of these are kept in collections around the world. One of the key factors for success in using microalgae for fuel production is to choose the right alga with the optimal culture conditions. Currently, there are more than 100 algal cultures kept within the Environmental Laboratory of the OUHK. Most of these algal species are isolated locally. The OUHK research team has successfully screened out several algal candidates which contain high lipid content and growth rate for further development.

    Improving wastewater treatment with algal based technology

    In order to reduce production costs, a more economical algal cultivation method should be developed. Urban wastewater in Hong Kong possesses relatively high salinity due to the use of seawater for the toilet flushing system, making it suitable for the cultivation of marine algal species. To make use of this opportunity, the OUHK research team has successfully developed an algal-based technology for wastewater treatment. A series of laboratory studies of algal treatment for wastewater has been conducted, and the results are very promising; over 90% of the pollutants in different wastewater media were removed using specific microalgal species that were isolated from the local water system. In Hong Kong, rapid urban development and population growth have greatly increased the input of pollutants into water bodies, causing eutrophication, which results in algal blooms. The algal-based wastewater treatment serves as an advanced supplementary biological process to conventional wastewater treatment facilities, further enhancing the quality of wastewater before discharging it back to the water body.

    A ‘3 wins’ integrated approach

    Presently there is a global effort underway to look for alternative renewable energy and to improve carbon fixation, in an effort to tackle global climate change and embrace sustainable development. Like plants, microalgae undergo photosynthesis. They are able to capture and utilize the carbon source and wastewater nutrients in order to convert them into biomass, which can then be used for biofuel production. Coupling algal biomass production with wastewater treatment is a practical, feasible and ‘win-win-win’ approach to lowering the economic and environmental costs associated with algae-based wastewater treatment, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and algal biofuel production. To date, the research team has sucessfully optimized the best conditions for using such algal technology for both wastewater treatment and algal biomass production, and a pilot-scale study will be conducted soon. Successful completion of the research could have significant implications on algal biofuel and renewable energy development both in Hong Kong and throughout Southeast Asia, which could help to address the approaching energy crisis in the near future.

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