Dr Andrew Ward University of Queensland and Dr Jason Dwyer from Urban Utilities with the Helidon algae.

Urban Utilities has led a $5 million joint research project to help support sustainable population growth across regional and rural Australia by revolutionising wastewater treatment with supercharged, waste-eating algae.

Urban Utilities spokesperson, Anna Hartley, said algae – which produce half the world’s oxygen – love to feed on nutrients found in wastewater, removing them naturally.

“Algae might be tiny, but they’ve got huge potential. Many people don’t realise algae are incredible clean, green, eating machines which are already used to treat wastewater across regional Australia,” Ms Hartley said.

“But the technology hasn’t significantly changed since the 1970s, and one of the biggest challenges we face with the current process is that it isn’t very efficient and takes a long time.

“We’ve worked with the industry’s greatest minds to turn our incredible algae into speed eaters, supercharging their natural abilities to purify wastewater up to five times faster.”

Ms Hartley said the novel technology was now being used at its Helidon Resource Recovery Centre.

“We know our population is growing and that means more wastewater flowing down people’s showers, sinks, and toilets that needs to be safely treated to protect our environment.

“This innovation can help support sustainable population growth in our regions by significantly increasing how much wastewater regional facilities can treat, without large infrastructure upgrades.

“It’s also designed to be retrofitted to existing plants, so it could be rolled out to these types of facilities nation-wide.”

Ms Hartley said they first started trials in 2019 at Urban Utilities’ Innovation Precinct at Luggage Point in Brisbane.

“The technology we developed involves two key steps, firstly we use tiny bacteria to start to break down the wastewater to make it easier for the algae to feed on.

“The wastewater is then transferred into long, shallow ponds called algae raceways, which speeds up treatment by ensuring conditions are just right and the algae are kept moving while they eat,” Ms Hartley said. 

Dr Andrew Ward from The University of Queensland, who worked alongside Urban Utilities on the project, said it was the first time in Australia the two processes had been integrated.

“Following smaller scale trials, we’ve now transported billions of algae to a demonstration scale plant in Helidon and it’s exciting to see the new-and-improved technology treating some of the town’s wastewater at an operational facility.”

Dr Ward said algae, which can double their numbers every day, could also be reused to create all kinds of sustainable products, including alternatives to plastic.

“Shoes, fertiliser, bioplastic, building materials and jet fuel can all be made with algae,” Dr Ward said.

“It’s such a valuable and versatile resource that’s being increasingly used all over the world, so as part of the next step we’ll be looking at the best ways to utilise algae in the future.”

The research was supported by a $1.4 million Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) grant from the Commonwealth Government.

Urban Utilities worked with the Australian Centre for Water and Environmental Biotechnology at The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia, Northern Territory Power and Water Corporation, Aquatec Maxcon, Lockyer Valley Regional Council and the Department of Environment and Science as part of the Cooperative Research Centre Project.

Featured image: Dr Andrew Ward University of Queensland and Dr Jason Dwyer from Urban Utilities with the Helidon algae. Image credit: Urban Utilities. 

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