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From Pollution to Power

December 6, 2018

Like many waterways around the world, the Port of Baltimore is polluted with excess nutrients from farm fertilizer runoff, city wastewater and other sources. Algae feast on those nutrients, triggering massive growth that chokes out other aquatic life. Last summer, algal growth left an average of 4.6 cubic kilometers of the bay without oxygen.

A third of the pollution reaching the bay literally falls out of the sky. Fossil fuels burned in power plants, cars and elsewhere create nitrogen oxide air pollution, which ultimately ends up in the bay, either attached to airborne particles or dissolved in rainwater.

Forests would soak up that pollution. But like many urban areas, the Port of Baltimore has a pavement problem. There’s not a tree to be found at the entire 230-hectare Dundalk Marine Terminal, where an algal turf scrubber is located.

Regulators require the port to remove as much pollution from the bay as its parking lots allow in. That’s where the algal turf scrubber comes in. The scrubber is like “a controlled algal bloom on land,” said University of Maryland environmental scientist, Peter May, “which puts the algae to work pulling nutrients out of the water.”

“The algal turf scrubber creates one big challenge, though,” Dr. May said. “What do we do with that algae? You have to have an end use or else you’re going to pile that algae up very quickly.”

It’s high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s been turned into animal feed. It can be fermented into biofuels. Some of Dr. May’s colleagues have used it to launch a fertilizer business. But here at the Port of Baltimore, they’re turning it into electricity.

Dr. May works with University of Maryland colleague Stephanie Lansing, an expert in anaerobic digestion. “We’re breaking down the material, and we’re producing energy in the process,” she says.

In this case, the microbes digesting the algae produce methane biogas. The biogas runs a fuel cell. “The fuel cell is actually a very efficient way to use the energy,” she said. “This small, pilot system produces a modest amount of electricity. You can use it to charge batteries. You can use it for lights. You can use it for fans.”

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