Algae: Green Pest or ‘Green’ Solution?

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, audiences cringed as Chinese officials scrambled to remove an enormous algal bloom choking the coastline set to host the Olympic sailing regatta. The bloom was a pest and something needed to be done. However, this green, fast-growing organism was just doing its job, eating and cleaning up high concentrations of nutrients spilling out into the Chinese coastline. In fact, algae’s agility and appetite for nutrient-rich waste has the potential to drive sustainability in industrial operations.

More than 200 million tons of human waste goes untreated every year, with much of that being discharged directly into lakes, rivers and oceans. Even in places where sewage is treated, the sewage systems are often overwhelmed by demand, especially during heavy rains. In addition, global aquaculture production has risen steadily and cultured fish have marched up the list of top 10 species consumed here in the U.S. Aquaculture farms generate vast amounts of waste in water that must be contained and treated. Farms and concentrated animal feeding operations are also major contributors of organic waste, contributing 1.37 billion tons annually, or 130 times more waste than human waste (reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and can in many cases pollute water streams.

Algae can be a part of the solution, rather than the problem. Fast-growing algae in wastewater can be harvested while the water is cleaned and the algae population can then be for other purposes, like fuel or feed. However there are challenges. Algae is often microscopic, especially in its early stages, and harvesting it efficiently and effectively over thousands of square miles of water surface is a nearly impossible challenge with conventional technology.

One technology provider, Los Angeles-based OriginOil where I am CEO, offers a chemical-free, low-energy technology that uses simple electrical pulses to harvest algae efficiently from water. The technology, called Electro Water Separation (EWS), is available to licensees worldwide, allowing its integration into markets with pronounced demand.
Asian countries in particular are keenly interested in cleaning bodies of water fouled by rising populations and unable to effectively cope. Removing algae not only cleans water systems, but also provides a ready source of algae for fertilizer, chemicals and fuel. In fact, one EWS licensee, Japan-based Orca Vision, reports that it has demonstrated the ability of EWS to remove algae in waterways, and is planning on a wide-scale rollout of the technology.

With partner Ennesys, EWS technology has been implemented in a commercial demonstration setting outside Paris. At the complex, a model of sustainable building techniques, EWS is used with the Ennesys system to sanitize liquid sewage, turn the urea in the water into nitrates to feed algae, and then to harvest the algae for use onsite as energy to cool the building.

For aquaculture farmers, EWS technology can harvest algae from water for a nutrient-rich fish feed substitute. Algae-based feed is high in omega 3s and is far less expensive than fish meal (in most cases one-third the cost of traditional feeds).

The baking-soda like technology (it has wide applications across many industries) is now also working on yesterday’s algae – petroleum. EWS is proven to remove 99 percent of organic contaminants in frac flowback and produced water, a boon for a growing industry. The EPA estimates oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year.

As professionals search for solutions that can green their businesses, they can call on new technologies to quickly clean waste, and turn algae from a problem into a solution, generating other valuable resources in the process.

Editor’s note: OriginOil Inc. is a public company trading on the Over The Counter market as OOIL.