• Baylor prof researches how algae can clean water — and generate the power to do so


    When most people look at algae, they see an icky, slippery green patch — something that is either an inconvenience or easily ignored. But when Dr. Scott James sees algae, he envisions the future — a future where cities save energy and money as they harness the power of algae to provide clean water.

    James, an assistant professor in Baylor’s Department of Geoscience, is studying various strains of algae for their efficiency in both water filtration and energy production. He focuses on algae for two important reasons: One, because algae feed off the very impurities that wastewater treatment plants remove from the water supply, and two, because algae then convert the impurities they eat into organic matter called biomass, which can be converted into biofuels — a source of energy.

    His research takes place at the Waco Metropolitan Area Regional Sewerage System (WMARSS) wastewater treatment plant, and could be of interest to other similar plants across the country. Nationally, wastewater treatment plants consume 3% of all energy used in the U.S. — a staggering total for one industry. Algae could be a sustainable source of energy that alleviates many energy-related and financial burdens on a city.

    “There’s no silver bullet for the energy crisis that we face,” James admits. “But, perhaps a piece of silver buckshot is in algal-biofuels. The nitrates and phosphates that have to be removed from water anyway are food for algae, so that’s why we use algae to remove it. If you can remove them with algae and produce biomass, we’re killing two birds with one stone.”

    Once James identifies the strains of algae that most efficiently filter water and most quickly convert what they consume into biomass, he’ll use those strains in a pilot project at WMARSS. If the pilot program is successful, WMARSS could expand the pilot project into a full-scale program, which could serve as a model for other wastewater treatment plants nationally.

    “Wastewater treatment is typically a municipality or city’s largest electrical bill,” James says. “But the chemical energy that comes into a wastewater treatment plant is typically 10 times the amount needed to run it. So, if instead of just getting rid of those chemicals, we turned them into biomass and in turn used it to power the wastewater treatment plant, we could save money, and potentially have each plant be a local power plant that could export energy.”

    Sic ’em, Dr. James!

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