By Peter Murphy
Published August 28, 2020
UB engineering professor Ian Bradley and his research group are collaborators on a $2 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that will study the use of algae to purify wastewater while simultaneously producing biomass for fuel production.
The project is led by Jeremy Guest, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in collaboration with researchers at Northeastern University and CLEARAS Water Recovery, as well as UB.
The work by Bradley, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and UB's RENEW Institute, and his team will focus on looking at the make-up and function of algae, which the scientists say is key to developing an effective system to treat wastewater and produce fuel.
“It is an unbelievable opportunity to not only significantly advance wastewater treatment, but the production of fuel from algae and the ways in which we think about feedstock production,” Bradley says.
He explains that he and his team will examine the DNA and RNA of algal species “to identify who’s there and what they are doing. Our group will be looking at the ecology of algae used to treat wastewater and produce fuel by using cutting-edge methods to identify the algal species and the role they play in the system.”
Understanding the make-up of algae is one of the first steps in this process. Once researchers understand the types of algae that are present and how they grow, they can design systems more effectively. Researchers will be able to create tailored processes to generate target species and biomass to produce higher-quality fuel.
“Fuel from algae is a renewable resource,” Bradley says. “The DOE has said that algal biofuel must use wastewater in order to be sustainable, but this comes with its own challenges. Wastewater is rich in nutrients, but the composition and algae that grow on it are always changing. By understanding the types of algae in a system and how they grow best, we can design the system specifically for them to increase production.”
For this project, Bradley and his team will use UB’s Genomics and Bioinformatics Core to sequence the DNA and RNA from algal samples they receive from the algal treatment systems that are partnering on the project. The work dovetails with their current study of biological processes used for wastewater treatment, and use of molecular methods, like DNA and RNA sequencing, to study those processes.
This project offers the team a chance to advance the understanding of algae.
“Rather than growing algae in only warm and sunny climates like the Southwest, we could transform wastewater treatment plants all over the country into algae production facilities,” Bradley says.