The Village Voice (Runnin' Scared Blog): The City Will Use Your Toilet Water to Turn Seaweed Into Biofuel

(November 19, 2010)

By Sergio Hernandez
Fri., Nov. 19 2010

The city's Department of Environmental Protection announced a new pilot program today that officials say will use cutting-edge technology to convert algae at a Queens waste-water treatment plant into biofuel for cars. How environmental! From our toilets to your cars.

In a statement released today, the city said it will use a device called an "Algal Turf Scrubber" at the Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plant to harvest and process algae into butanol, a proposed gasoline alternative.

DEP commissioner Cas Holloway called the project a "promising" effort to convert waste into "productive resources."

"This project is still in the pilot phase, but the results are promising," Holloway said. "We can convert algae grown from the waste water New Yorkers produce every day to high-quality fuel that can be put right in your gas tank."

The turf scrubber uses two metal troughs to simulate stream currents and promote algae growth by flooding the algae with 60 gallons of treated waste water per minute. After two weeks, the algae is dried using powerful vacuums and sent to the University of Arkansas' chemical engineering department, which converts the dried algae into usable fuel.

Supporters of butanol say it is a better fuel than ethanol because it's cleaner, more versatile, and packs more energy per gallon (meaning it's less pollutive, has a wider variety of uses, and provides better fuel economy) than other biofuels.

Mike Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications for the Lung Association in New York State and New York City, said he "applauds" the city's latest efforts to find cleaner fuels:

"We know that the old, dirty fuels that were used to run our city were a major contributor and continue to be a major contributor to New York's poor air quality," he said. "Any time that we're seeing new technologies being piloted, we're encouraged because we know those technologies are going to be what helps our children breathe cleaner air in the future."

The algae scrubbing technique, developed in the 1980s by a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, will cost the city $387,000, officials said. The project is a joint effort between the DEP, the University of Arkansas, and two private environmental firms.