Phycoremediation: Harnessing microalgae for sustainable wastewater treatment


By Dr. Paran Anak Gani

The intensifying challenges posed by environmental pollution have prompted a quest for innovative and sustainable solutions. In this pursuit, phycoremediation has emerged as a promising technology, offering a beacon of hope in the context of wastewater treatment.

At the forefront of this ecological revolution is the strategic utilisation of microalgae, a diverse group of microscopic photosynthetic organisms, providing a green and effective approach to combat the escalating concerns linked to conventional wastewater treatment methods.

Phycoremediation, at its core, leverages the unique capabilities of microalgae to remediate contaminated wastewater. This process is grounded in the natural ability of these tiny organisms to absorb and assimilate pollutants, ranging from nutrients to heavy metals and organic compounds, through the mechanism of photosynthesis. The symbiotic relationship between microalgae and wastewater contaminants results in not only the purification of the water but also the generation of biomass, contributing to the sustainable utilisation of resources.

Microalgae, such as Chlorella, Spirulina, and Scenedesmus, exhibit tremendous potential for wastewater treatment. These microscopic organisms possess the unique ability to absorb and accumulate nutrients, heavy metals, and organic pollutants from wastewater, transforming it into a cleaner and environmentally friendly effluent. The high photosynthetic efficiency of microalgae further enables the conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into biomass, offering a dual benefit of wastewater treatment and carbon sequestration.

One notable example of successful phycoremediation application technology is found in the city of Chennai, India. Chennai-based company Phycospectrum Environmental Research Centre (PERC) has implemented an innovative approach to treat industrial wastewater using microalgae. PERC developed a technology known as the ‘PhycoTreat’ system, which utilises various species of microalgae to effectively treat effluents from industries such as textiles, tanneries, and pharmaceuticals. The technology involves the cultivation of specific strains of microalgae in open ponds or closed photobioreactors, depending on the characteristics of the wastewater to be treated.

Furthermore, the cultivation of microalgae in wastewater provides a sustainable alternative to conventional treatment methods, reducing the reliance on energy-intensive processes. The versatility of microalgae in adapting to varying environmental conditions enhances their applicability for wastewater treatment in different regions and climates. Despite its potential, phycoremediation faces certain challenges that must be addressed for widespread implementation.

One significant challenge is the economic feasibility of large-scale microalgae cultivation and harvesting. The initial investment and operational costs associated with setting up and maintaining microalgae-based wastewater treatment systems can be barriers to adoption.

Additionally, optimising the growth conditions of microalgae to maximise their pollutant removal efficiency remains a complex task. Factors such as light availability, temperature, and nutrient concentrations must be carefully controlled to ensure optimal performance. The risk of algal blooms, which may occur if the microalgae are not effectively managed, poses another challenge that needs to be addressed to prevent adverse environmental impacts.

To overcome the challenges and propel phycoremediation forward, interdisciplinary research and collaboration are imperative. Technological advancements in photobioreactor design, monitoring systems, and harvesting techniques can enhance the efficiency of microalgae-based wastewater treatment. Moreover, economic incentives, government policies, and public awareness campaigns can foster the widespread adoption of phycoremediation technologies. Investing in research and development to improve the economic viability of microalgae cultivation and harvesting methods is crucial for the scalability and long-term success of this sustainable wastewater treatment approach.

In conclusion, the future of phycoremediation using microalgae holds great promise as a sustainable and effective solution for wastewater treatment. With its potential to address environmental pollution, reduce energy consumption, and generate valuable biomass, this technology represents a significant step towards a greener and more sustainable future. Overcoming challenges through continued research, technological innovation, and collaborative efforts will pave the way for the widespread adoption of microalgae-based phycoremediation, contributing to the preservation and restoration of our water resources.

Dr. Paran Anak Gani is a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Construction Engineering at Curtin University Malaysia’s Faculty of Engineering and Science. He holds a PhD in Civil Engineering, specialising in wastewater phycoremediation, and a Bachelor’s degree with Honours in Civil Engineering from Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia. Dr. Paran’s research focuses on practical applications of microalgae for wastewater treatment (phycoremediation) and biomass production, as well as using phytoremediation technology for bioremediation of contaminated soil and converting waste materials into value-added products. Dr. Paran can be contacted by email at