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ODU Biofuels Team Consulting on California Wastewater Project

Hatcher (front) with algae-to-biofuels team: Schafran, Gordon, Stubbins and Marshall

A California wastewater treatment plant that is using Old Dominion University geochemist Patrick Hatcher and several other ODU researchers as consultants is getting attention from around the globe for its innovative, Earth-friendly plan to improve efficiencies.

Hatcher, ODU's Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences and the executive director of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC), has long been a champion of algae as a biomass source of alternative fuels. With VCERC he has also promoted systems in which algae, as they grow, can scrub harmful nutrients from wastewater and carbon dioxide from industrial-plant airborne emissions.

In Victorville, Calif., which is about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles on the edge of the Mojave Desert, the Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority has been working with Hatcher and the ODU algae-to-biodiesel research team to grow oil-rich strains of algae in a wastewater plant's percolation ponds. The algae feed on nitrates and phosphorus, stripping these contaminants from wastewater before it is discharged into the Mojave River.

Other than Hatcher, the ODU researchers working with the California authority include Aron Stubbins, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry and assistant director of VCERC; Harold Marshall, Morgan Professor emeritus of biological sciences; Gary Schafran, chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Andrew Gordon, professor of biological sciences.

The algae growing in the ponds also can provide a for-fee service to industrial facilities neighboring the wastewater plant. Carbon dioxide emissions that ordinarily would escape into the atmosphere, or require an expensive anti-pollution containment scheme, can be pumped into the ponds and sequestered because the algae need carbon dioxide in order to grow.

A spokesperson for the Victor Valley authority told the Daily Press newspaper in Victorville that biofuels gleaned from algae are expected to generate electricity for the wastewater plant. Therefore, the plan would save money for the authority's ratepayers while also helping to clean up the environment. He said the plan, which is expected to be implemented beginning this summer, has spurred recent visits to the plant from officials in Korea, China, Sri Lanka and Mexico.

The spokesman said the system is projected to cost the authority $11 million, but should generate an equivalent amount of savings and revenues in 6 ½ years.

In Virginia, Hatcher pointed out, VCERC has shown that algae can grow well in treatment plant effluent. "A goal of our Virginia research consortium is to offer a value-added biofuels product by developing a commercial process in which the algae we need for biofuels are grown in nutrient-rich wastewater. We want to produce not only a 'green' fuel, but also marketable by-products that would help algal biofuels compete in the marketplace," he said. These by-products could include valuable carbon credits for carbon dioxide sequestered by the algae.

"Therefore, our total product would be 1) a renewable biodiesel fuel that would be produced locally and economically competitive with fossil fuels, 2) fuel that would result in carbon emissions lower than those for fossil fuels, with the aim of producing a zero net carbon emission fuel, 3) cleaner coastal waters and 4) marketable credits for removal of nutrients and carbon dioxide from discharges and emissions," Hatcher said.

In addition to ODU, where VCERC is based, the consortium includes researchers from Hampton University, James Madison University, Norfolk State University, Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science. For more information, visit www.vcerc.org.

This article was posted on: February 9, 2010

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