Carbon limitation in hypereutrophic, periphytic algal wastewater treatment systems

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© 2020 Furnish, Keller. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Global eutrophication degrades water quality in freshwater ecosystems and limits the availability of freshwater for human consumption. While current wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) remove pathogens and pollutants, many US WWTF continue to discharge nutrients that contribute to eutrophication. Traditional nutrient removal technologies can effectively reduce eutrophication risk, but can have unintended negative consequences on human and environmental health. Alternatives, such as algae-based treatment systems, improve the sustainability of the nutrient recovery process by producing biomass that can be converted to biofuel. However, research is needed to increase the productivity of algal treatment systems to improve their economic viability. Because algae in wastewater treatment systems are grown in wastewater rich in nutrients, the algae could become limited by dissolved inorganic carbon. This hypothesis was tested in 1.2 m long recirculating floways (n = 8 for each treatment/control) by quantifying algal dry mass and wastewater nutrient concentrations in 3 independent experiments: (1) carbon dioxide gas infused vs air infused control; (2) hydrochloric acid acidified vs neutralized solution control vs no chemical addition control; and (3) sodium bicarbonate addition vs no chemical control. Results showed increases in algal biomass after 18 days in wastewater augmented with dissolved inorganic carbon (carbon dioxide or sodium bicarbonate). In contrast, maintaining wastewater at near neutral pH with hydrochloric acid reduced algal productivity relative to controls. Nutrient reductions generally paralleled algal biomass increases except in the bicarbonate addition experiment. These findings provide evidence for the importance of carbon limitation in algal wastewater treatment floways. These results could help explain why carbon dioxide infusions stimulate algae in treatment systems. Furthermore, these results suggest that algae in nutrient enriched, sun-exposed streams (e.g., agricultural ditches or urbanized streams) may become carbon limited during peak periods of productivity. These findings could have important implications for ecosystems undergoing eutrophication as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise.

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