Turning waste into wealth

algae in freshwater with other aquatic plants

A successful partnership between Queensland’s James Cook University and Melbourne-based MBD Energy Ltd is using the algae that normally grows in stagnant water to create innovative products that benefit both the environment and the economy.

The research project is using the algae for waste water treatment, aquaculture, nitrogen and carbon sequestration, fertiliser and feedstock.

MBD, which specialises in producing cleaner water and bio-products by recycling industrial waste, initiated the project with the university in 2008.

“We wanted to work with leading Australian researchers to help us develop our technology and products,” Andrew Lawson, MBD’s managing director says.

With the necessary expertise and an established track record in working with industry, Professor Rocky de Nys of the university’s College of Science and Engineering proved to be an ideal partner.

The university has one of the world’s largest algal research teams and has mobilised more than 30 researchers from its Centre for Macroalgal Resources & Biotechnology to work on the project.

“I have continued to see our collaboration with James Cook University’s world-leading researchers as inspiring,” Lawson says. “Actually seeing the ideas develop and then commercialise in practice, benefitted us as a company and motivated us in our work.”

Outcomes of the partnership

The university–MBD collaboration has delivered several exciting and commercially successful systems and products.

As the world’s population grows, aquaculture is becoming an increasingly important source of food. The project has developed world-first, macroalgae-based water treatment and aquaculture technologies that reduce this industry’s environmental impact. These technologies have been rolled out at several large prawn farms in northern Queensland, expanded to Vietnam and negotiations are underway on new markets in Thailand.

The harvesting and transformation of algal biomass into bio-products including high-value human food, animal supplements and feeds, and plant fertilisers, is another focus. The algal biomass can also been turned into bioenergy as a liquid fuel or biogas. It’s an eco-friendly initiative – the algae biomass is a by-product of algae-based water filtering, which is cultivated in waste water and its production does not involve the use of good quality water or arable land.

Macroalgae-based water cleaning systems have been introduced in a custom-built 80,000 litre municipal waste water purification facility in Townsville, demonstrating that algae is very effective in removing nitrogen and phosphorus from water. MBD is now working with a number of municipalities to scale-up this process.

The project has also shown that algae is effective in capturing and sequestrating carbon emissions, and that valuable co-products, such as livestock feed, can be generated from the captured carbon. The project developed a display facility for biological carbon capture and storage using micro- and macro- algae, which captured flue gas from the Stanwell Energy coal-fired power station at Tarong in Queensland and used it to grow algal biomass.

As a testament to its success, the university–MBD partnership has recently been extended for a further 20 years to support the commercial rollout of projects.

The research partnership has so far attracted private investment of $70 million and public funding of $30 million. The public funding came from agencies including the Australian Biofuels Research Institute; the Australian Renewable Energy Agency; the Advanced Manufacturing Co-operative Research Centre; and Queensland Smart State.

To drive innovation and business growth, the Australian Government is supporting better links between research institutions and industry. The government’s annual National Survey of Research Commercialisation collects data on how Australia’s publicly funded research system collaborates with industry to transfer knowledge and commercialise research.

Published January 2017

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