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The Great Mobile Bay Algae Shake

Daphne Utilities didn’t set out to change the world, but their mix of sewage, algae and wave power just might.

John Perry Barlow (left) and Rob McElroy inspect the algae system they hope to use to turn “sewage energy” into fuel.

John Perry Barlow (left) and Rob McElroy inspect the algae system they hope to use to turn “sewage energy” into fuel.

Thanks to a Tweet sent out by a retired cattle rancher who wrote several of the Grateful Dead’s most popular songs, Daphne Utilities, a small sewer utility in south Alabama, is a key player in an experiment that may transform wastewater treatment on a global scale.

“My company, Algae Systems, is working to convert sewage energy into carbon-negative transport fuels,” tweeted Algae Systems President John Perry Barlow back in January of 2011. When Rob McElroy, general manager of the Daphne utility, got wind of the Tweet, he knew it was worth investigating.

Running a sewage treatment facility, McElroy has plenty of “sewage energy” on his hands, about three million gallons a day on average. Finding a beneficial use for the stuff flushed down toilets and drains is like finding the Holy Grail for anyone in McElroy’s line of work.

In Barlow, McElroy found a man dreaming of turning sewage waste into fuel for automobiles, an accomplishment almost as fantastic as Rumplestiltskin’s straw into gold act. The Daphne utility has run its trucks on homemade biodiesel for years, making the fuel out of used cooking oil. But turning one of humanity’s nastiest waste products into oil, one of the world’s most precious commodities, would be the ultimate biofuel.

The Algae Systems model relies on using sunlight and algae to purify wastewater without chemicals or filters. The algae and the waste are placed in containers floating in a coastal water body like Mobile Bay. Mixed by wave action and fertilized by the nitrogen and phosphorus in the waste, the algae reproduces at an accelerated rate, gobbling up the contaminants and releasing the pent-up energy stored in the waste. At the end of the process, the algae can be rendered into various types of fuel, and the purified water is almost clean enough to drink.

So far, the process has been proven only in a laboratory set up in part of the Daphne Utilities compound. Beakers of vivid green liquid, lined up along a counter in the lab, bubble gently. Stepping through a zippered plastic enclosure into the clean room, a visitor is confronted with a towering vat that contains a swirling mix of algae being readied for injection into the waste stream. Dozens of plastic bags containing waste and algae soak up simulated sunlight from banks of fluorescent lights.

“We input this and this,” McElroy says, holding up a brown vial labeled “waste” and a green vial labeled “algae.” Holding up two more vials, he says, “And out comes this: Drinking water and an oil we can turn into just about any type of fuel.”

Work is underway to scale up a larger version that will be set up in the north end of Mobile Bay, where waves will provide the mixing necessary to the process. The plan is to purify 50,000 gallons of water a day. For McElroy, the operation fit into his mantra of “wringing every bit of use out of your available resources.”

“When we started, my first thoughts were that converting wastewater into a fuel is interesting, but it’s not going to change the world. But cleaning wastewater with algae, now that’s something,” McElroy says. “I envision this as a solution for places like the African coast, where you’ve got masses of people living in poverty, hampered by high mortality rates because of the conditions they live in.”

“If you can take this system, with a very low technology level, very low energy use, and very low capital investment, and go into an area like the African Coast, you can show a whole community how they can take the wastewater they are basically having to live in, clean it up to create drinking water, and create a fuel to run the whole process,” McElroy says. “I don’t mean to sound cliché, but you can literally change the world with an approach like that. ”

For Barlow, the project stems from his desire “to be a better ancestor.” Running a cattle ranch in Wyoming in the 1980s, Barlow started the state’s largest environmental group, which often put him at crossed purposes with his fellow ranchers. In recent years, he has been a prominent activist responsible for helping spread the Internet across Africa. Now he’s focused on safe drinking water. 

“I spent a lot of time with people making less than 75 cents a day. Most of the illness in the world, most of the death in the world, is the result of drinking water that isn’t appropriate for drinking. There are more people on the planet who have cell phones than have toilets,” Barlow says.

A key moment in the development of the partnership with Daphne Utilities unfolded during the process of getting permits to allow the construction of the experimental treatment system in a portion of Mobile Bay.

“Going to the Corps of Engineers and the state of Alabama was difficult. They looked at us and said, ‘What? You want to put wastewater in plastic bags and sterilize it in public waters?’” Barlow says. “Rob stepped up and put his utility permits on the line, said we would work to his standards, which are high. I don’t think there’s a surface in his sewer plant you couldn’t eat off of.”

Says McElroy, “I tell my staff that we need to be ready for inspection every day. They usually get word that I’m bringing somebody to see the plant as I’m driving in the driveway.”

McElroy says he believes a utility needs to be run to the highest of standards, for sewage treatment facilities have more to do with a healthy environment than almost any other business. That’s what excites him about Algae System’s method, that it could deliver clean water to impoverished nations worldwide.

“You can have a long lasting impact with this that is much greater than anything that John Perry and I can do here in Daphne, Alabama,” McElroy says.

Both men acknowledge that significant hurdles remain.

“What they are trying to do has worked in a test tube, so far. But how will it scale up to working on a million gallons a day? That’s where this will be proven,” McElroy says.

“None of this is easy. Whether we can get this to work on the kind of broad scale that we need to work in the real world is an open question,” Barlow says. “We’re on an adventure. We’ve faced a lot of difficulties to get where we are, and so far passed every one of them.”

Ben Raines is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Fairhope.

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