Wastewater treatment by filamentous macroalgae
Ross, Michael Eric
An increase in anthropogenic activity has led to the heightened levels of pollution entering aquatic systems. These excessive concentrations of heavy metals, nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) in water bodies can lead to several adverse impacts, such as eutrophication and human health risks. Therefore, the removal of pollutants from wastewaters, prior to their discharge into the natural environment, is of paramount importance. However, conventional wastewater treatment (WWT) technologies have their limitations; for instance, large capital/operational costs, and incomplete removal of contaminants. Therefore, innovative and more effective treatment technologies are required. Macro-algae typically have high growth and solar energy conversion rates, and are able to sequester nutrients, utilise CO2, and adsorb metals from aquatic environments. Therefore, algae may have potential applications in WWT. Furthermore, costs could be negated by the production of renewable algal biomass which may have a variety of commercially exploitable applications. However, issues such as poor selection of species or cultivation systems, and a lack of understanding of the influence of biological, chemical and physical factors, particularly in a highly dynamic wastewater environments, has led to varied results and prevented algal WWT becoming a widespread reality. In this thesis the algae Cladophora coelothrix and Cladophora parriaudii were studied as potential organisms for implementation into WWT. In addition to the features mentioned above, Cladophora was selected due to its ubiquity, filamentous morphology, which minimises harvesting costs, as well as their natural dominance and bloom forming behaviour in nutrient-rich environments. The influence of dewatering techniques, environmental factors, and nutrient regime upon the growth, nutrient/metal removal, and biochemical composition of the biomass were assessed. The first aspect of the thesis was an abiotic screening process, in order to investigate the robustness of Cladophora and its suitability for WWT applications on a fundamental level. Good rates of growth (4-13.3% d-1) and nutrient removal (45.2-99.9%) were observed throughout the screening process, except under the most extreme of conditions, e.g. pH 3. This indicated that Cladophora are potentially suitable for treating a broad range of wastewaters and merit further research to improve its potential applicability for WWT applications and commercial realisation. For instance, developing a reliable and accurate method for fresh weight (FW) assessment and hence productivity estimation. The determination of growth rate via FW measurement is one of the most basic aspects of algal biology, yet no standardised method exists for filamentous macro-algae. A variety of FW methods were systematically assessed in terms of accuracy and physiological impact. Methods involving mechanical pressing to dewater the biomass resulted in >25% reduction in the final biomass yield, compared to control cultures. The best method for FW determination employed a reticulated spinner, which was rapid, reliable, and easily standardised. Furthermore, this approach ensured accurate growth estimation with minimal physiological impact, measured as growth, maintenance of structural integrity and nutrient removal. This indicates that the method developed has the potential for widespread application in macro-algal cultivation, as such the method was employed throughout this thesis. The influence of nutrient regime on growth, biochemical composition, and bioremediation capacity was studied for both species of Cladophora. The nutrient regimes tested, representative of a broad variety of wastewaters, included four different N/P ratios, four N sources (ammonium, nitrate, nitrite and urea), and six different equimolar N source combinations provided at two N/P ratios. There were clear differences in performance between the two species, with higher rates of growth observed in all instances by C. parriaudii (4.75-11.2% d-1 vs. 3.98-7.37% d-1). Furthermore, ammonium was removed preferentially, whereas urea was removed secondarily. However, the presence of urea in the medium enhanced growth and uptake of the other co-existing N-forms, and yielded a carbohydrate-rich biomass (37.6-54% DW). These findings demonstrate that algal strain selection is important for treating wastewaters with specific nutrient profiles. In addition, results from this study suggest that nutrient regimes can be tailored to produce biomass with certain properties or characteristics, which make it suitable for further, potentially commercially viable, applications, such as metal biosorption. Since the biochemical characteristics of algal biomass were shown to be affected by nutrient regime, the final chapter describes research investigating the influence of nutritional history on metal biosorption. C. parriaudii was cultivated under different nutrient regimes to produce biomass of varying biochemical composition. This biomass was then used for metal removal, with maximum removal rates ranging from 1.08-2.35 mmol g1, 0.3-0.62 mmol g-1, 0.22-0.48 mmol g-1, and 0.43-0.61 mmol g-1 for Al2+, Cu2+, Mn2+, and Pb2+, respectively. Observations from this work indicate that metal removal is achieved by various mechanisms including adsorption, ion exchange, complexation and micro-precipitation, and that the biosorption efficacy is dependent upon the number and type of functional groups present, which are in turn influenced by the cultures nutrient regime. Overall, this study demonstrates the inter-relatedness of biological, chemical, and physical factors on algal growth, nutrient removal, biochemical composition, and metal biosorption. Results from this work have highlighted the need for standardisation in protocols, increased understanding of the influence of algal selection and nutrient characteristics in bioremediation, and highlighted the importance of considering biological aspects, specifically nutritional history, in biosorption studies.