Does Algae Get Rid of Waste?

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Key Takeaways:

  • Algae can remove nitrogen, phosphorus, and dissolved organic carbon from wastewater through uptake during growth.
  • Algae produce oxygen that allows aerobic bacteria to breakdown organic contaminants in wastewater.
  • As algae multiply and consume nutrients, they remove carbon dioxide and can produce lipids for biofuel.
  • Algal-bacterial systems are a natural, low-cost wastewater treatment option.
  • Challenges include algae strain selection, contamination, and harvesting efficiency.


Wastewater treatment is essential for protecting human and environmental health. Traditional methods like activated sludge can be energy and cost intensive. This has led to increasing interest in algae-based systems as a natural, low-cost wastewater treatment approach. But does algae actually help get rid of waste from wastewater?

This article will provide a comprehensive evaluation of using algae for wastewater treatment. It analyzes the mechanisms and benefits of algae in removing contaminants like nitrogen, phosphorus, and organic carbon. The article covers key considerations in implementing algal systems including strain selection, bioreactor design, and harvesting. Scientifically-backed evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of algae for wastewater treatment across municipal, agricultural, and industrial contexts.

Understanding the waste removal capabilities of algae empowers engineers, operators, and regulators to utilize these natural systems. Algal-bacterial wastewater treatment can lower costs, embodied energy, chemical use, and environmental impacts versus traditional methods. The in-depth content provides readers with knowledge to evaluate the applicability of algal systems for their needs. Let us explore how algae can leverage sunlight, CO2, and the abundance of nutrients in wastewater to get rid of waste.

How Do Algae Remove Waste from Wastewater?

Algae utilize dissolved nutrients and minerals in wastewater for growth in a process called bioremediation. As algal cells multiply and increase in mass, they assimilate nitrogen, phosphorus, and dissolved organic carbon into their tissues. Algal uptake of nutrients directly removes dissolved contaminants from the wastewater.

Additionally, algae produce oxygen through photosynthesis. This oxygen sustains populations of aerobic bacteria which mineralize and breakdown complex organic molecules and suspended solids. The algal-bacterial system removes biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), and total suspended solids (TSS) from wastewater.

During active growth, algae also sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Algal-bacterial systems can remove up to 80-90% of carbon dioxide from flue gas streams. This gives algae-based treatment a distinct advantage over conventional methods in terms of net carbon emissions.

What Contaminants Do Algae Remove from Wastewater?

Algae have demonstrated capabilities for removing nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, suspended solids, pathogens, and heavy metals from wastewater streams.


Algae assimilate inorganic nitrogen (N) in the form of ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite into proteins, DNA, and other cellular components. A study by Cabanelas et al. found that various microalgal strains removed over 90% of nitrogen from centrate wastewater. Chlorella sorokiniana was especially effective, reducing inorganic N below 5 mg/L.


Algae accumulate dissolved phosphates (PO43-) and incorporate phosphorus into cell membranes and compounds like ATP. Scenedesmus spp. have shown phosphorus removal efficiencies of 90-99% in agricultural and municipal wastewaters.

Organic Carbon

Algae utilize dissolved organic carbon, converting it into algal biomass. Up to 60% of dissolved organic carbon can be removed by algal assimilation and metabolism. Additionally, oxygen produced by algae allows heterotrophic bacteria to mineralize and reduce BOD, COD, and soluble microbial products.

Suspended Solids

While algae do not directly remove particulate matter, photosynthetic oxygenation enables aerobic digestion of organic particulates by bacteria. Algal-bacterial systems have achieved 80-90% reductions in TSS.


Algal ponds expose wastewater to prolonged UV irradiation which damages pathogens. Fecal coliforms and other bacteriological contaminants are effectively inactivated, reducing risks of downstream infection.

Heavy Metals

Bioaccumulation of heavy metals like zinc, copper, and cadmium has been demonstrated in various algae genera. However, removal efficiency remains low and highly species specific.

What Are the Benefits of Algal Wastewater Treatment?

Algae offer a natural, low-cost treatment process with significant advantages over conventional wastewater treatment methods:

  • Lower Energy Use: Algal systems utilize natural sunlight rather than electricity for the treatment process. 60-70% reductions in energy use are possible versus activated sludge.
  • Lower Operational Costs: With minimal mechanical equipment and no chemical addition, algal systems have significantly lower operating costs. Savings of 15-40% are achievable.
  • Nutrient Recycling: Algal biomass can be used as a biofertilizer, recycling nitrogen and phosphorus back to agricultural land.
  • CO2 Mitigation: Algal photosynthesis fixes large amounts of carbon dioxide as organic carbon. This gives algae-based systems a negative carbon footprint.
  • Co-Products: Lipids and hydrocarbons can be extracted from algal biomass for biofuels. High value supplements like omega-3, antioxidants, and proteins can also be produced.

What Are Important Considerations for Algal Wastewater Treatment?

While algae offer advantages for waste removal, there are challenges that must be addressed in design and operation:

Algae Strain Selection

Algae species must be adapted to local climate conditions and contaminants. Strains with high growth rates, nutrient uptake capabilities, and ease of harvesting are ideal. Native, non-invasive strains are preferred.

Bioreactor Design

Open ponds, closed photobioreactors, attached algal biofilms, and hybrid designs each have merits and limitations. Optimal light and temperature conditions must be maintained for algal growth.

Contamination Control

Algal cultures can become contaminated with invasive species like rotifers and amoeba that inhibit growth. Periodic UV/chemical treatment may be required.

Harvesting Efficiency

Separating dilute algal cultures from treated wastewater can be energy-intensive. Efficient, low-cost harvesting methods are needed.

Water Quality Standards

Treated effluent should meet discharge regulations for BOD, nutrients, and pathogens. Post-treatment like disinfection may be required.

Frequently Asked Questions

How effective are algae at removing nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater?

Studies have shown algae can remove over 90% of nitrogen and phosphorus from municipal and agricultural wastewaters. Assimilation into algal biomass is the primary removal mechanism. Species like Chlorella, Scenedesmus, and Spirulina have demonstrated particularly high nutrient uptake capabilities.

Can algae treat domestic wastewater?

Yes, algal treatment systems have been successfully demonstrated at both pilot and full-scale for domestic wastewater. Algae ponds efficiently remove BOD, nitrogen, and pathogens to meet common effluent standards. Advantages include simple operation, low costs, and production of valuable algal biomass.

Do algae consume heavy metals from industrial wastewater?

Certain algal species can bioaccumulate heavy metals like copper, lead, and cadmium. However, bioaccumulation efficiency remains relatively low (<10%) for direct algal uptake. Combination with other technologies like biosorption may enhance heavy metal removal. Algae work best for removing soluble inorganic contaminants like nutrients.

How do algal systems compare to conventional activated sludge?

Algal ponds have 60-70% lower energy inputs and 15-40% lower operating costs than activated sludge. Sludge disposal is avoided. Algal systems recycle nutrients through biofertilizer application and can have net negative CO2 emissions. However, more land is required and effluent quality may not meet strict discharge standards without further treatment.

What are the main challenges for full-scale algal wastewater treatment?

Key challenges at full-scale include contamination control, efficient algal harvesting, meeting stringent discharge regulations, and maintenance of optimal growth conditions year-round. Integrated systems with conventional secondary treatment can help overcome limitations related to effluent quality and seasonal variability.


Algae have proven capabilities to naturally treat wastewater by removing nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, and pathogens. Benefits include lower energy inputs, operating costs, and CO2 emissions versus conventional treatment. While challenges exist, algal-bacterial systems present a sustainable alternative for decentralized, low-cost wastewater treatment, especially in rural or peri-urban areas. Proper bioreactor design and strain selection tailored to local conditions allows algae to effectively leverage organic wastes and sunlight to get rid of contaminants.

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