Human activities produce waste. In autotrophic mode, microalgae consume these waste materials, as growth nutrients, along with sunlight to create more biomass and O2. This process is known as photosynthesis, and microalgae are the fastest photosynthetic organism on the planet. Moreover, they are not land-based and do not compete for arable land. The algae themselves are full of useful products. This paper demonstrates at near commercial scale that nutrients in waste streams can be recovered and recycled in a circular economy by algae production. The downstream process for algae harvesting and refinement is also demonstrated at scale via a bio-refinery approach with close to 100% mass efficiency. In this way, valuable products can be obtained from recycled materials resulting in a cost-effective process. Thus, algae have great potential to bio-remediate waste materials and create value, which has significant environmental benefits.
The bioremediation of digestate using microalgae presents a solution to the current eutrophication issue in Northwest Europe, where the use of digestate as soil fertiliser is limited, thus resulting in an excess of digestate. Ammonium is the main nutrient of interest in digestate for microalgal cultivation, and improving its availability and consequent uptake is crucial for optimal bioremediation. This work aimed to determine the influence of pH on ammonium availability in cultures of two green microalgae, additionally screened for their growth performances on three digestates produced from different feedstocks, demonstrating the importance of tailoring a microalgal strain and digestate for bioremediation purposes. Results showed that an acidic pH of 6–6.5 resulted in a better ammonium availability in the digestate media, translated into better growth yields for both S. obliquus (GR: 0.099 ± 0.001 day−1; DW: 0.23 ± 0.02 g L−1) and C. vulgaris (GR: 0.09 ± 0.001 day−1; DW: 0.49 ± 0.012 g L−1). This result was especially true when considering larger-scale applications where ammonium loss via evaporation should be avoided. The results also demonstrated that digestates from different feedstocks resulted in different growth yields and biomass composition, especially fatty acids, for which, a digestate produced from pig manure resulted in acid contents of 6.94 ± 0.033% DW and 4.91 ± 0.3% DW in S. obliquus and C. vulgaris, respectively. Finally, this work demonstrated that the acclimation of microalgae to novel nutrient sources should be carefully considered, as it could convey significant advantages in terms of biomass composition, especially fatty acids and carbohydrate, for which, this study also demonstrated the importance of harvesting time.
Implementing a circular economy aimed at reusing resources is becoming increasingly important for industry. Microalgae fit within a circular economy by being able to bioremediate nutrient waste and as a source of biomass for several commercial applications. Here, we report a novel validation of a circular economy concept using microalgae at a relevant industrial scale with a new two-phase process. During the first phase biomass was grown autotrophically, biomass was then concentrated using membrane technology for the second phase where mixotrophic conditions were applied to boost growth further. Microalgae cultures were able to grow (13.8 g/L), uptake and bioremediate nutrients (Nitrogen > 134 mg/L/day) from an anaerobic digestion side-stream (digestate), obtaining high quality microalgae biomass (>45% protein content) suitable for use as animal feed, closing the circular economy loop for industrial applications.
Digestate produced from the anaerobic digestion of food and farm waste is primarily returned to land as a biofertiliser for crops, with its potential to generate value through alternative processing methods at present under explored. In this work, valorisation of a digestate resulting from the treatment of kitchen and food waste was investigated, using dilution, settlement and membrane processing technology. Processed digestate was subsequently tested as a nutrient source for the cultivation of Chlorella vulgaris, up to pilot-scale (800L). Dilution of digestate down to 2.5% increased settlement rate and induced release of valuable compounds for fertiliser usage such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Settlement, as a partial processing of digestate offered a physical separation of liquid and solid fractions at a low cost. Membrane filtration demonstrated efficient segregation of nutrients, with micro-filtration recovering 92.38% of phosphorus and the combination of micro-filtration, ultra-filtration, and nano-filtration recovering a total of 94.35% of nitrogen from digestate. Nano-filtered and micro-filtered digestates at low concentrations were suitable substrates to support growth of Chlorella vulgaris. At pilot-scale, the microalgae grew successfully for 28 days with a maximum growth rate of 0.62 day-1 and dry weight of 0.86 g.L-1. Decline in culture growth beyond 28 days was presumably linked to ammonium and heavy metal accumulation in the cultivation medium. Processed digestate provided a suitable nutrient source for successful microalgal cultivation at pilot-scale, evidencing potential to convert excess nutrients into biomass, generating value from excess digestate and providing additional markets to the anaerobic digestion sector.
Municipal and agricultural waste treatment is one of the key elements of reducing environmental impact with direct effects on the economy and society. Algal technology has been tested to enable effective recycling and valorisation of wastewater nutrients including carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. An integrated evaluation and optimisation of the sustainability of an algal bio-refinery, including mass and energy balances, carbon, water and nutrient use and impact analysis, was assessed. A bio-refinery approach of waste remediation using algal cultivation was developed at Swansea University, focusing on nutrient recovery via algal biomass exploitation in pilot facilities. Mass cultivation (up to 1.5 m 3) was developed with 99% of nitrogen and phosphorus uptake by microalgal cultures. Nannochloropsis oceanica was used as a biological model and grown on three waste sources. The compounds obtained from the biomass were evaluated for animal feed and as a potential source of energy. The bioremediation through algal biotechnology was examined and compared to alternative nutrient recovery passive and active methods in order to know the most efficient way of excess nutrient management. Conclusions emphasise the high potential of algal biotechnology for waste remediation and nutrients recovery, despite the need for further development and scalable applications of this new technology.