World’s Largest Wastewater Algae Project Successfully Grows Its First Crop

A view of the All-gas project algae facility. (Credit: All-gas project)
A view of the All-gas project algae facility. (Credit: All-gas project)

The $16 million All-gas project, the world’s largest to turn algae into clean energy using wastewater, has achieved a major milestone. The EU-backed Spanish project has successfully produced its first crop of algae biomass at its site in Chiclana, Southern Spain. Several weeks ago the European parliament’s environmental committee has voted in favor of limiting the use of food-based biofuel in cars and trucks to a maximum of 5.5% of total consumption, making algae-based biofuel production a more attractive option for investors.

The algae crop has produced outstanding results—the biomass obtained shows a particularly high energy potential relative to its digestibility level, with a methane production capacity of around 200-300 litres of gas per kilogram of biomass processed by anaerobic digestion. The microalgae also allow the purification of wastewater to a high standard.

Launched in May 2011, the five-year project has already completed its pilot phase (the first two years) in a 2100 square ft. facility. The plans for the construction of the biomass plant are on schedule, and a one-hectare (approx. 2.47 acres) prototype is under construction. The wastewater algae project’s final phase will span 10 hectares (approx. 24.7 acres)—the equivalent of ten soccer fields.

In terms of surface area, this will be the first time a project of this scale (10 hectares of cultivation) will be implemented in the world for the cultivation of algae into bioenergy using wastewater treatment. In New Mexico, there is a 6-hectare biofuel production site—but it uses artificial fertilizer and not the waste nutrients. Various other installations around 10 hectares do exist but are using food crops to produce biofuel.

It is expected that by 2016, the biofuel produced by the All-gas project will be enough to power 200 vehicles. When the project reaches its demonstration phase, the biogas produced will be used to power public buses and garbage trucks in the region of Cadiz (Spain).

According to Frank Rogalla, Project Coordinator and FCC Aqualia’s Director of Innovation and Technology: “This original new approach to bioenergy means that Spain’s 40 million population could power 200,000 vehicles every year with a single toilet flush. The All-gas project is going to change the face of wastewater treatment by generating a valuable energy resource from what was previously considered undesirable waste.”

In recent years, the European Union has made a decisive commitment to the pursuit of new sources of clean energy. The current aim is that 20% of the energy produced in Europe will come from renewable sources by 2020.

The raw material used to obtain the biofuel—wastewater—is a waste product and its treatment is actively consuming energy and resources. The All-gas project proposes to use this wastewater, as well as CO2, generated in biomass boilers from residuals such as garden waste or olive pits, to feed the algae, that are in turn converted into biogas. A part of the biogas is CO2, which gets separated from the biomethane and recycled.

As Nicolas Aragon, Chiclana’s environmental councilor, explains: “This is not only an R&D project, but also a way of reducing costs and investing in the protection of our natural environment. Chiclana is a worldwide tourist destination and from now on, we will show that along with attracting visitors with our sunshine and beaches, we can also grow sustainable biofuel with our natural resources.”

Furthermore, this technology avoids the controversy that surrounds other biofuel projects, which are based on large-scale food crops. Food-based biofuels have been criticized for raising food prices as well as having an adverse environmental effect. The All-gas system is also self-sufficient as it runs on the energy it produces and it is part of an integral water management system.

The All-Gas consortium is led by FCC Aqualia, and comprises five other organizations, from Germany (Fraunhofer – Gesellschaft), Austria (BDI), the Netherlands (Feyecon y Hygear) and the UK (University of Southampton).