Chiclana de la Frontera, a beautiful resort town in the southwest of Spain, is known for its sandy beaches lined by tall pinewoods, sprawling golf courses, salt marshes and natural parks around the Bay of Cadiz. The scenery is spectacular, as I experienced on a visit there in 2011.
Now the town is adding another green site to its list of attractions: the world’s first plant to convert sewage into clean energy.
The facility in Chiclana de la Frontera uses raw sewage and sunlight to produce algae-based biofuel as part of a 12 million euro ($15.7 million) project to pursue alternative energies and decrease dependence on foreign oil.
The town was chosen for the site because of its ample sunlight and a long stretch of land that runs along oceanside salt fields where algae can be easily grown in man-made ponds.
It is still in a pilot phase, but the plant harvested its first crop of algae in May and expects to fuel its first car by December.
Biomass simply refers to biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. Once touted by President Obama as the fuel of the future, biomass has recently been discredited by some critics who believe the large quantities of energy, water and chemicals needed to produce it makes the process unsustainable.
However, not everyone agrees with this assessment: biomass plants are in operation across the UK as it strives to meet the EU goal of deriving 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020. Biomass contributes the second highest amount after offshore wind power.
And this project in Chiclana, called All-gas to sound like “algas” or seaweed in Spanish, also sets out to prove the potential of biomass, becoming the first municipal wastewater plant using cultivated algae as a source for biofuel.
While industries such as breweries or paper mills have produced biogas from wastewater for their own energy needs, All-gas is the first to grow algae from sewage in a systematic way to produce a net export of bioenergy, including vehicle biofuel.
“Nobody has done the transformation from wastewater to biofuel, which is a sustainable approach,” said All-gas project leader Frank Rogalla, standing outside a trailer-laboratory set up beside an algae pond at the waste treatment site in Chiclana.
Carbon dioxide is used to produce algae biomass, and the green sludge is transformed into gas, a clean biofuel commonly used in buses or garbage trucks because it is less polluting.
All-gas expects the plant to be fully up and running by 2015, when it aims to generate annual biofuel production worth 100,000 euros, or enough biofuel to run about 200 cars or 10 city garbage trucks a year. However, whether the project is able to fuel cars on a large scale will depend on the amount and quality of biofuel it can produce, and at what cost.
Spain is weighed down by a record 27 percent unemployment rate, with the south disproportionally affected, so the hope is that this facility will help relieve some of the economic pain.
Sewage has also been in the news in Britain, where sewage flakes, a highly combustible new renewable form of fuel that burns like woodchips, are being used for the first time to generate electricity for Britain’s largest water and sewage company.
Thames Water has begun producing the flakes by drying sludge (sewage solids) in a purpose-built machine at sewage works in Slough, Berkshire.
That very same Thames Water has recently proposed the reintroduction of treated sewage water into the drinking water system as a way “to continue providing drinking water and collecting and treating wastewater, in a safe and reliable way, over the next 25 years.”
In Spain, the All-gas model is still too new for anyone to know for sure how well it will work, but project leader Fank Rogalla is optimistic.
According to Reuters:
“The opportunity is such that 40 million people, roughly the population of Spain, would be able to power 200,000 vehicles from just flushing their toilet!” he said.
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