Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Major Professor

Qiong Zhang, Ph.D.

Committee Member

James R. Mihelcic, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Sarina Ergas, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Babu Joseph, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jonh Jermier, Ph.D.


Microalgae, Biofuel, Wastewater, Life cycle assessment, Kinetic model


This research investigated life cycle environmental impacts and benefits of an integrated microalgae system with wastewater treatment system using an integrated process modeling approach combined with experimentation. The overall goal of this research is to understand energy, carbon and nutrient balances in the integrated system and to evaluate the environmental impacts and benefits of the integrated system from a carbon, nutrient, and energy perspective. In this study, four major research tasks were designed to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the environmental and economic sustainability of the integrated system, which included development of an integrated co-limitation kinetic model for microalgae growth (Chapter 2), kinetic parameter estimation models for anaerobic co-digestion (Chapter 3), development of an integrated process model (Chapter 4), and life cycle environmental and economic assessments of the integrated system (Chapter 5).

The integrated co-limitation kinetic model was developed to understand microalgae growth in the centrate from dewatering of anaerobically digested sludge. This growth kinetic model considered four major growth factors, including Nitrogen (N), dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, light intensity, and temperature. The model framework was constructed by combining threshold and multiplicative structures to explain co-limitation among these factors. The model was calibrated and validated using batch studies with anaerobically digested municipal sludge centrate as wastewater source, and the model was shown to have a reasonable growth rate predictor for Chlorella sp. under different nutrient levels of the centrate.

Anaerobic co-digestion was used for energy conversion process in the integrated system. To estimate methane production of anaerobic co-digestion, kinetic models commonly applied. To apply the kinetic model, determining kinetic parameters for anaerobic co-digestion of microalgae and waste activated sludge (WAS) is essential, and this research introduced two potential regression-based parameter estimation models to estimate the kinetic parameters. Using the estimation models presented, the kinetic parameters for co-digestion was able to be determined for different ratios of co-substrates with limited experiments.

In this research, the integrated process model was developed to simulate the dynamic behavior of the integrated system. The model included the microalgae cultivation, harvesting, and anaerobic co-digestion processes in the integrated system to provide a comprehensive understanding of the integrated system. For cultivation, the integrated co-limitation kinetic model was applied to estimate microalgae productivity, while the regression-based parameter estimation model was used to determine the first order kinetic parameter to estimate methane production rates for anaerobic co-digestion. The simulated microalgae productivity results were comparable to typical microalgae productivity in open pond systems. For the integrated system, removal of NH4-N by microalgae was not efficient. In particular, the NH4-N removal was minimal during the winter season due to low microalgae growth. As the microalgae productivity increased, the CH4 and biosolids production increased as a result of the increased amount of the substrates from the harvested microalgae biomass. The increase of CH4 and biosolids productions, however, was minor because of the small amount of microalgae biomass for the co-digestion.

Based on simulated data for integrated process modeling, the life cycle environmental and economic impacts of the integrated system (with different CO2 supply areas) were evaluated and compared to the conventional wastewater treatment system. The integrated systems had a lower carbon footprint, cumulative energy demand, and life cycle cost than the conventional system. The integrated system with 10% CO2 sparging area was able to achieve the lowest carbon footprint. Without CO2 addition during microalgae cultivation, the integrated system had the lowest energy balance and life cycle cost. However, there is no significant difference between the integrated and conventional systems for eutrophication potential because these systems had the same effluent quality. In terms of an energy saving with the integrated systems, the benefit of energy reduction for the wastewater treatment was greater than the energy production from the anaerobic co-digestion, compared to the conventional system. Overall, the integrated system can improve the carbon balance by reducing the life cycle energy required in the conventional system.