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Spanish town turning sewage into clean energy

June 27, 2013

Aqualia’s All-gas project researcher Mara Laureano

Aqualia’s All-gas project researcher Mara Laureano carries two Imhoff cones with water samples from a tank at a wastewater treatment plant in Chiclana de la Frontera, near Cadiz, in southern Spain. Credit: Reuters/Jon Nazca

Is a Spanish resort town with sprawling golf courses and tree-lined beaches the world’s first plant to convert sewage into clean energy? A facility in Chiclana de la Frontera, on the southwest tip of Spain, is using wastewater and sunlight to produce algae-based biofuel as part of a 12 million euro ($15.7 million) project to pursue alternative energies and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

The project in Chiclana, called All-gas (which sounds like “algas” – seaweed, in Spanish) claims to be the first municipal wastewater plant using cultivated algae as a source for biofuel. While industries such as breweries or paper mills have produced biogas from wastewater for their own energy needs, All-gas is the first to grow algae from sewage in a systematic way to produce a net export of bioenergy, including vehicle biofuel.

“Nobody has done the transformation from wastewater to biofuel, which is a sustainable approach,” said All-gas project leader Frank Rogalla. Carbon dioxide is used to produce algae biomass, and the green sludge is transformed into methane gas, for buses or garbage trucks.

All-gas’ owner Aqualia is the world’s third largest private water company. It is owned by Spanish infrastructure firm FCC, which is betting on its environmental services business to relieve pain from a domestic construction downturn. While energy efficiency projects have gained pace in other European countries, Spain has been held back by a budget gap that was at the center of concerns that the country would need an international bailout last year.

The All-gas project is three-fifths financed by the European Union FP7 program to determine the effectiveness of the methane produced from algae-derived biomass in cars and trucks.

The Chiclana plant, still in a pilot phase and 200 square meters in size, harvested its first crop of algae last month and expects to fuel its first car by December. All-gas expects it to be fully up and running by 2015, when it aims for 3,000 kg of algae on 10 hectares of land – enough, they estimate, to generate biofuel to run about 200 cars or 10 city garbage trucks a year.

But whether the project is able to fuel cars on a large scale will depend on the amount and quality of bioethanol it can eventually produce, and at what cost.

Chiclana, which relies on tourism and salt-processing fields for its livelihood, was chosen for the site because of its ample sunlight and a long stretch of land that runs along oceanside salt fields where algae can be easily grown in man-made ponds.

The All-gas model has drawn interest from other efficiency-minded municipalities in southern Spain with populations between 20,000 and 100,000 and with enough land to develop the algal ponds, said Rogalla, who has identified at least 300 small towns where such projects could work.

Aqualia has also had contact with Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and a French company over the possibility of building and operating similar water treatment plants under a concession.

– Reuters – Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Pravin Char

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