Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Civil Engineering

Degree Granting Department

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Major Professor

Daniel H. Yeh, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Norma Alcantar, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Sarina Ergas, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Valerie Harwood, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Piet Lens, Ph.D.


biofuel, dialysis, nutrients, phycoprospecting, phycoremediation, resource recovery


Renewed momentum in the microalgae industry due to commercial interest in biofuels and bioproducts is driving the need to increase the economic competitiveness of large-scale microalgal production. Current knowledge of membrane systems common in other disciplines, such as environmental engineering, marine science, and biomedicine, are relevant to algae production. With pore sizes ranging from microns to angstroms, membranes provide tailored functions for solid/liquid separation (cell retention, biomass concentration and dewatering), gas/liquid separation (gas delivery and removal), and solute/liquid separation (bioproduct recovery, feedstock preparation and effluent recycling) that are problematic or not possible with other technologies. Though membranes have great potential to facilitate cultivation and harvesting, challenges in energy reduction and fouling mitigation need to be overcome for long-term, cost-effective applications. This body of research includes a thorough literature review of membrane applications in the algal industry and three experimental studies investigating ways to improve the cultivation and harvesting of microalgal species in wastewater.

The first study investigated the growth of native and augmented algal communities in various growth media. Algal monocultures (Chlorella sorokiniana and Botryococcus braunii) and algal communities native to clarifiers of a wastewater treatment plant were batch cultivated in 1) clarified effluent following a BOD removal reactor (PBCE), 2) clarified effluent following a nitrification reactor (PNCE), and 3) a reference medium (RM). After 12 days, all algal species achieved nitrogen removal between 68-82% in PBCE and 37-99% in PNCE, and phosphorus removal between 91-100% in PBCE and 60-100% in PNCE. The pH of the wastewater samples increased above 9.8 after cultivation of each species, which likely aided ammonia volatilization and phosphorous adsorption. Both monocultures grew readily with wastewater as a feedstock, but B. braunii experienced significant crowding from endemic fauna. In most cases, native algal species' nutrient removal efficiency was competitive with augmented algal monocultures, and in some cases achieved a higher biomass yield, demonstrating the potential to utilize native species for nutrient polishing and algal biomass production.

In the second study, the isolated cultivation of algal resource utilizing selectivity (ICARUS) process was conceived and developed. ICARUS integrates a passive membrane photobioreactor configuration with wastewater as a growth medium. Eleven membranes of varying porosity and materials were examined based on characteristics and resulting algae productivity. Four ICARUS series (40kDa-PVDF, 0.53 g L-1, 14.1 mg; 0.1µm-PVDF, 0.43 g L-1, 16.6 mg; 12kDa-RC, 0.35 g L-1, 14.5 mg; 0.2 µm-CA, 0.41 g L-1, 14.5 mg) had a final cell density and mass yield that was significantly higher than that of suspended culture (0.25 g L-1, 9.1 mg). Optimal pore size range was identified to be 50-1000 kDa. Six additional series (0.2µm-CA, 0.1µm-PVDF, 40kDa-PVDF, 12kDa-RC, 3.5kDa-PVDF, and 3kDa-RC) also sustained significantly longer exponential growth phases than the suspended cultures. The ICARUS series maintained an average pH of 9.55, which was significantly lower than the average pH of 10.21in the suspended culture. Membrane characteristics affecting the variability in microalgae productivity were evaluated in 2D and generalized linear models.

In the third study, select membranes from the laboratory experiments in Chapter 5 (12kDa-RC, 40kDa-PVDF, 7µm-NY) were tested in extended field conditions at a wastewater treatment plant, where the movement of dissolved constituents and biomass productivity were compared to that of closed suspended series. All ICARUS series had higher biomass productivity (RC, 2.87 g L-1; PVDF, 10.6 g L-1; NY, 8.45 g L-1) than the suspended series (0.38 g L-1), which was due to both a longer exponential growth phase and passive dewatering in the ICARUS series. Dissolved ions passed readily across each membrane, and no nutrient limitation was apparent in any series. Gas exchange was slower than expected, which may have been due to external and internal attached growth utilizing gases at the membrane surface. However, dissolved oxygen concentration did not limit algal growth, and adequate carbon dioxide was available to regulate ICARUS pH. In fact, the ICARUS series maintained an average pH of 7.6, whereas the pH of the control series reached 9.8-10.5. The invasion of endemic wastewater species was dependent on pore size; the RC and PVDF series maintained a monoculture, but the NY series had severe contamination.

The resulting research has demonstrated a proof-of-concept of a new microalgal cultivation method which may reduce the cost of large-scale cultivation efforts integrated at wastewater treatment plants or within existing algal production facilities. Investigating various wastewater effluents, membranes, and algal strains has allowed for recommendations for the operation of scaled-up systems. Future research should focus on mechanisms and characteristics of biofouling as well as the operation of a field scale prototype. By improving large scale algal cultivation, algal biofuels may become more economically competitive with fossil fuels or other renewables, enhancing their participation in the country's diverse energy portfolio.