The findings, which are based on a five-month study at a wastewater treatment facility in Houston, are available online in the journal Algae.
"Biofuels were the hot topic in algaculture five years ago, but interest cooled as the algae industry moved toward producing higher-value, lower-volume products for pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, cosmetics and other products," said study lead author Meenakshi Bhattacharjee, a 28-year veteran of algal research who joined Rice's biosciences faculty in June. "The move to high-value products has allowed the algaculture industry to become firmly established, but producers remain heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers. Moving forward, they must address sustainability if they are to progress toward producing higher-volume products, 'green' petrochemical substitutes and fuels."
Bhattacharjee said the algae industry's reliance on chemical fertilizers is a double whammy for algae producers because it both reduces profit margins and puts them in competition with food producers for fertilizers. A 2012 National Research Council report found that "with current technologies, scaling up production of algal biofuels to meet even 5 percent of U.S. transportation fuel needs could create unsustainable demands for energy, water and nutrient resources."
The 2012 report also pointed to wastewater-based cultivation as a potential way to make algae production sustainable. An added appeal is that the method could potentially address a looming environmental problem: nutrient pollution in U.S. waterways. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nutrient pollution from excess nitrogen and phosphorous—the two primary components of chemical fertilizers—is "one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems."
Wastewater treatment facilities currently have no cost-effective means of removing large volumes of nitrates or phosphorous from treated water, so algae production with wastewater has the potential of solving two problems at once, said study co-author Evan Siemann, Rice's Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor of BioSciences.