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Is algae the key to greener sewage treatment in regional areas?

A new initiative aimed at harnessing the power of sewage-munching algae could transform wastewater treatment in regional and rural areas.

The three-year research project, led by Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU), will investigate ways to enhance the use of algae in lagoon-based sewage treatment.

QUU Algae Specialist Dr Andrew Ward said simple, low-cost changes could help the microorganisms thrive, which would provide flow on benefits including reduced operating costs and better environmental outcomes.

“One of the most exciting things about this project is its potential to increase plant capacity to cater for future population growth, without the need for costly infrastructure upgrades,” Ward said.

Dr Andrew Ward and QUU Research and Development Business Partner Dr Jason Dwyer.

As part of the study, which began at QUU’s Luggage Point Innovation Precinct in February, anaerobic treatment is introduced at the start of the process. This captures biogas and mineralises nutrients in the wastewater for the algae to digest. 

In the next treatment stage, algal ponds are mixed by a paddle wheel, providing a low-energy way of breaking down organic matter.

“During this stage, we’ll also harvest the algae and remove the biomass, so we can research further options for beneficial reuse in fertilisers or other products,” Ward said.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will also be used to boost the effectiveness of the natural solution and automate the treatment process. The AI will continuously collect data from the algal ponds, which it will use to optimise the system.

The research is being funded in part by a $1.4 million Cooperative Research Centre projects grant, and will see QUU working alongside the University of Queensland’s Advanced Water Management Centre, University of Western Australia, Northern Territory’s Power and Water Corporation, Aquatec Maxcon, Lockyer Valley Regional Council and the Department of Environment and Science.

QUU CEO Louise Dudley said the study is particularly important for water authorities outside Australia’s metro regions. 

“Lagoon-based treatment plants have been around for more than 100 years and are most common in regional and rural areas of Australia,” she said.

“This project will look at how our industry can utilise existing infrastructure and optimise the treatment process to deliver better outcomes for the community, customers and the environment.”

More trials are scheduled to take place in 2020 at QUU’s Lockyer Valley treatment plant and the Northern Territory Power and Water Corporation’s treatment plant at Humpty Doo.