Microalgae for municipal wastewater nutrient remediation: mechanisms, reactors and outlook for tertiary treatment

posted on 03.11.2015 by Rachel Whitton, Francesco Ometto, Marc Pidou, Peter Jarvis, Raffaella Villa, Bruce Jefferson

This review explores the use of microalgae for nutrient removal in municipal wastewater treatment, considering recent improvements in the understanding of removal mechanisms and developments of both suspended and non-suspended systems. Nutrient removal is associated to both direct and indirect uptake, with the former associated to the biomass concentration and growth environment (reactor). Importantly, direct uptake is influenced by the Nitrogen:Phosphorus content in both the cells and the surrounding wastewater, with opposite trends observed for N and P. Comparison of suspended and non-suspended systems revealed that whilst all were capable of achieving high levels of nutrient removal, only non-suspended immobilized systems could do so with reduced hydraulic retention times of less than 1 day. As microalgae are photosynthetic organisms, the metabolic processes associated with nutrient assimilation are driven by light. Optimization of light delivery remains a key area of development with examples of improved mixing in suspended systems and the use of pulsating lights to enhance light utilization and reduce costs. Recent data provide increased confidence in the use of microalgae for nutrient removal in municipal wastewater treatment, enabling effluent discharges below 1 mg L−1 to be met whilst generating added value in terms of bioproducts for energy production or nutrient recovery. Ultimately, the review suggests that future research should focus on non-suspended systems and the determination of the added value potential. In so doing, it is predicted that microalgae systems will be significant in the delivery of the circular economy.