Can Real-Time Microbial Monitoring Advance Microalgal Wastewater Treatment?

professor in lab looking down squirting into lab dish

Pinto co-PI of $2 Million DoE grant to explore new processes to treat wastewater with algae

In a new $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Northeastern University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Ameet Pinto is collaborating with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Buffalo, a municipality, and private industry to study the use of algae in purifying wastewater and biofuel production. Pinto will serve as co-PI on the grant.

Phosphorus and nitrogen are common pollutants found in wastewater. “The release of nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment, even at low levels, can impact the receiving environment and leads to issues such as eutrophication, harmful algal blooms, etc,” said Pinto. “Further, phosphorus is a limited resource – recovering it from waste streams not only prevents environmental damage but also promotes its sustainable use and re-use.”

Current methods for removing these pollutants are expensive and energy-intensive, and research shows that even a modest reduction in energy expenditures required for treatment could save hundreds of millions of dollars nationally. In this new grant, Pinto and the team, lead by Dr. Jeremy Guest of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will explore a new process for treating wastewater using algae. According to Guest, the algae method has shown to be far more efficient at removing phosphorus from wastewater than traditional processes.

Furthermore, the algae growth produced by this process can be harvested to produce biofuels, creating a system by which the treatment of our wastewater also decreases our reliance on more carbon-intensive forms of fuel.

“Northeastern will develop optical sensing tools and rapid DNA sequencing-based protocols for rapid characterization of the microalgal community in these photobioreactors,” said Dr. Pinto, who specializes in methods for rapid identification of microbial communities in water. Frequently and quickly identifying which algae are thriving within the treatment system will allow scientists to finetune and optimize the process. “Enhancing the robustness and reliability of wastewater treatment systems aimed at resource recovery, all while ensuring process control, informed by microbiological measurements, is agile, could be a step change— not just for resource recovery from waste but for other biotechnological applications that rely on mixed microbial communities,” explained Pinto.

Joining Pinto in his work on this project will be his Interdisciplinary PhD student Benjamin Gincley. Gincley has worked on microbial identification methods before, having been awarded a 2020 Graduate Research Fellowship to continue his work on developing an imaging-based platform for detecting microorganisms in water. The university teams are partnering with the village of Roberts in Wisconsin and CLEARAS Water Recovery, Inc. to conduct the field work. CLEARAS has done previous studies on algal treatment systems and is developing a new facility in Roberts.

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering