Energy from Wastewater Using Floating Algae Membranes
Nowadays, there is a good percentage of wastewater that is recycled and purified again for reuse within the city’s water supply. But not all of the water is reused, and for civilized areas of the world near large bodies of water, a good portion of the wastewater also goes out into offshore territory.
Now, this does not mean that we don’t have other options for dealing with wastewater, it’s just that treating wastewater, or even transporting it to somewhere safe would always cost energy and money. But what if we could turn wastewater into something that can be productive for our economy? That’s the heart of the idea that inspired the concept of using wastewater to produce energy.
Microalgae have been one of the most promising future sources of biofuel. For one thing, they can be made to grow easier than conventional crops, and the product yield can go to several orders of magnitude compared to other biofuel sources. Now, what would a biofuel-synthesizing microalgae need in order to thrive and grow? Something that it could work on and digest obviously. Something organic, something that is biological in origin, and that’s where wastewater comes in.
Jonathan Trent, a researcher working at NASA’s nanotechnology department, has been working on the OMEGA system, which stands for Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae. As the acronym describes it is basically a farm that uses large enclosed plastic membranes to grow and cultivate biofuel producing microalgae. Wastewater from the nearby city’s sewage system provides the needed living conditions for the microalgae, while all the other elements such as sunlight are provided by the environment. The offshore nature of the OMEGA project also stresses one of the most important key points in biofuel production: that it must not use up available land for food production.
The best thing that I can tell about the OMEGA system is that it is an enclosed system that cycles itself with the use of different elements and energy sources. It can treat wastewater, produce biofuel, and even sequester carbon all in a single integrated process. An upgraded version of the OMEGA project even plans for using solar and wave energy to make the facility completely energy independent. They also plan to introduce aquaculture (like growing mussels and oysters beneath the membranes) to improve the productivity the system.
The current status of the OMEGA system places it still at the experimental stage. Though they have already built a small-scale prototype system, the calculations needed to pull the project off economically on a standard scale is still yet to be properly made. Also, as the OMEGA system is designed to treat all of the wastewater from a city, it would have to be substantially large. Funding is yet to be available to elevate the idea to such a high level.
But even if the OMEGA system still needs to deal with some economic hurdles, that fact that it directly tackles the problem of wastewater management still makes it a promising project. Think about it. A huge amount of the world’s wastewater is going to be dumped offshore anyway, and the standard treatment process for it would still require energy. Why not invest the energy instead into something that can potentially pay back more than what it had used?
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