* World's first plant to convert sewage to clean energy
* Project aims to generate 100,000 euros of biofuel a year
* Critics say oil content from algae is low
By Tracy Rucinski
CHICLANA DE LA FRONTERA, Spain, June 26 A
Spanish resort town with sprawling golf courses and tree-lined
beaches has added another green site to its attractions: the
world's first plant to convert sewage into clean energy.
The facility in Chiclana de la Frontera on the southwest tip
of Spain uses wastewater and sunlight to produce algae-based
biofuel as part of a 12 million euro ($15.7 million) project to
pursue alternative energies and reduce reliance on foreign oil.
The use of algae for biomass, once touted by U.S. President
Barack Obama as the fuel of the future, has been written off by
some critics who say the large quantities of energy, water and
chemicals needed to produce it makes the process unsustainable.
The project in Chiclana, called All-gas to sound like
"algas" or seaweed in Spanish, seeks to prove otherwise,
becoming the first municipal wastewater plant using cultivated
algae as a source for biofuel.
While industries such as breweries or paper mills have
produced biogas from wastewater for their own energy needs,
All-gas is the first to grow algae from sewage in a systematic
way to produce a net export of bioenergy, including vehicle
"Nobody has done the transformation from wastewater to
biofuel, which is a sustainable approach," said All-gas project
leader Frank Rogalla, standing outside a trailer-laboratory set
up beside an algae pond at the waste treatment site in Chiclana.
Carbon dioxide is used to produce algae biomass, and the
green sludge is transformed into gas, a clean biofuel commonly
used in buses or garbage trucks because it is less polluting.
All-gas' owner Aqualia is the world's third largest private
water company. It is owned by loss-making Spanish infrastructure
firm FCC which is betting on its environmental services
business to relieve pain from a domestic construction downturn.
While energy efficiency projects have gained pace in other
European countries, Spain has been held back by a yawning budget
gap that was at the centre of concerns the country would need an
international bailout last year.
The All-gas project is three-fifths financed by the European
Union FP7 programme to determine the effectiveness of the
methane produced from algae-derived biomass in cars and trucks.
TOILETS TO TANKS
The Chiclana plant, still in a pilot phase and 200 square
metres in size, harvested its first crop of algae last month and
expects to fuel its first car by December.
All-gas expects it to be fully up and running by 2015, when
it aims for 3,000 kg of algae on 10 hectares of land, roughly 10
football fields, to generate annual biofuel production worth
100,000 euros - that's enough biofuel to run about 200 cars or
10 city garbage trucks a year.
Spain is battling a record 27 percent unemployment rate,
with the south worst affected, and cash-strapped consumers have
struggled under the weight of wage cuts and tax hikes over the
past two years aimed at reining in the public deficit.
Chiclana, which relies on tourism and salt-processing fields
for its livelihood, was chosen for the site because of its ample
sunlight and a long stretch of land that runs along oceanside
salt fields where algae can be easily grown in man-made ponds.
All-gas says its sewage plant is over 2 million euros
cheaper to set up and run than a conventional sewage plant.
But whether the project is able to fuel cars on a large
scale will depend on the amount and quality of bioethanol it can
eventually produce, and at what cost.
Researchers so far have concluded that it may take years
before algal biofuels are economically viable, though they may
eventually be able to replace some portion of petroleum.
The All-gas model has drawn interest from other
efficiency-minded municipalities in southern Spain with
populations between 20,000 and 100,000 and with enough land to
develop the algal ponds, said Rogalla, who has identified at
least 300 small towns where such projects could work.
Aqualia has also had contact with Brazil, the United Arab
Emirates and a French company over the possibility of building
and operating similar water treatment plants under a concession.
Rogalla is optimistic.
"The opportunity is such that 40 million people, roughly the
population of Spain, would be able to power 200,000 vehicles
from just flushing their toilet!" he said.
($1 = 0.7637 euros)
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Pravin Char)