The exciting future of wastewater

[USA] Big implications are resulting from what looks like a small algae research project using the City’s wastewater.

“This research has global implications for wastewater management in sunbelt regions that are hot and dry,” said New Mexico State University College of Engineering Professor Nagamany Nirmalakhandan (known as Khandan).

At the Jacob A. Hands Wastewater Treatment Facility in Las Cruces — where it is hot and dry — an annual 3.3 billion gallons of sewage from sinks, showers, and toilets all over town is processed and treated by Las Cruces Utilities Wastewater Section. When the wastewater reaches the clear effluent stage, meeting Federal discharge standards, it is pumped into the Rio Grande.

NMSU College of Engineering Professor Nagamany Nirmalakhandan with three of his graduate students, Shanka Henkanette-Gedera, Mohsen Karbakhsh, and Duplex Tchinda at the photobioreactors on the campus of the JHWWTF. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Fish, birds, and other wildlife thrive in the treated wastewater, which flows into the Rio Grande and is eventually processed further and used by other downstream communities. It’s the best treatment process possible today and it’s absolutely necessary — but as all municipalities are aware, it is very expensive, requiring tremendous amounts of energy.

Hope is on the horizon, however, thanks to a partnership between LCU and NMSU demonstrating an algal-based process, with the potential to change the entire wastewater treatment process in sunbelt regions.

For the past 2 years, the algae demonstration project at the JHWWTF has been getting “consistently good results,” according to Khandan and three of his top graduate students. How good? Good enough to merit additional funding.

The research was originally funded by the National Science Foundation for Reinventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure and the Department of Energy with $5 million that has now been extended with a further $3 million to take the studies through 2021.

First developed in test tubes in the lab, and now demonstrated outdoors in 200-gallon plastic tanks called photobioreactors, NMSU researchers have proven that a specific microalgae (Galdieria sulphuraria) found in the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, can thrive in 110-degree temperatures while removing wastewater contaminants.

The algae consumes organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous, making the treated wastewater suitable for discharge into waterways. Based on the collaborative effort between LCU and NMSU over the past two years, Dr. Khandan and his students have published seven research papers in scientific journals and presented this project at several National and International conferences.

Cleaning wastewater is the primary goal of the project; and can totally change the way communities manage it while dramatically lowering the cost. Khandan notes, “This process using single-celled algae to clean wastewater is low cost, it’s never been demonstrated under field conditions before, requires only low amounts of energy, and it works.”

There are two more potential big business benefits of the research:

Fertilizer for crops that is full of nitrogen and phosphorus extracted from the wastewater; Biofuel produced from extracting oil from the algae grown in wastewater.

This exciting future of wastewater is only taking shape thanks to the partnership between NMSU and LCU.

 

Photo: Algae sample is pulled from a photobioreactor where it is thriving and removing contaminants from the City’s wastewater.
(Photo: Courtesy photo)

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