January 14, 2010

Biology Professor's Biomass Project with City of Santa Rosa Honored for Environmental Excellence

algaescoop.jpgThe Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) presented a City of Santa Rosa Biomass-to-Fuel Project started by an SSU biology professor with the 2009 Theodore Roosevelt Environmental Award recently.

The winner in Category One (projects under $100,000) was the City of Santa Rosa for its Aquatic Biomass-to-Fuel Project. The city, in collaboration with Sonoma State University, built two channelized aquatic scrubbers that use vegetation to remove nitrate and other nutrients from wastewater that can clog waterways and compete with native plants. The plants also create biomass, which can be harvested for anaerobic energy production.

Professor Michael Cohen's initial work with the City's treatment plant has focused on the development of affordable systems for concomitant bioremediation and bioenergy production. He and his students are testing channelized scrubbers that contain aquatic plants and filamentous algae for their efficiency at removing nutrients and other pollutants from treated municipal wastewater.

He is also optimizing anaerobic digestion of the harvested scrubber biomass, mixed with agricultural by-products from local dairies and wineries, to produce methane gas. Other experiments examine the use of digester effluent (digestate) as a plant growth-promoting soil amendment.

The project has gained national recognition with three awards, most recently winning a "Pearson Sustainable Solutions Award", and has garnered over $200,000 in funding from a variety of sources, including the California Energy Commission, Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the City of Santa Rosa.

Graduate student Catherine Hare is a key researcher on the project and recently earned a prestigious Switzer Fellowship for her accomplishments. She is currently working with undergraduate Zane Knight to investigate the relative contributions of aquatic vegetation and microorganisms to the nitrate removing capacity of the scrubbers.

Begun in 2007, the project has now expanded to include two experimental anaerobic digesters to be operated by graduate student John Kozlowski for his Masters Thesis research. In addition, the California Strawberry Commission is sponsoring the research of graduate student Aaron Agostini to determine the efficacy utilizing spent digestate as a co-treatment to combat pathogens of strawberry and support plant growth.

This strawberry-related research is being conducted in collaboration with Research Plant Pathologist Dr. Mark Mazzola of the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Graduate student Mia Maltz, working with undergraduate Jackie Sankisov, is examining an application of digestate in stimulating microbial degradation of petroleum in contaminated soils.

The winner in Category Two (projects between $100,000 and $1 million) was El Dorado Irrigation District for its Caples Lake Fisheries and Habitat Preservation Program and the winner in Category Three (projects over $1 million) was the Sonoma County Water Agency for its Summer Youth Ecology Corps.

"ACWA's member agencies are making significant strides in resource management," said ACWA President Glen Peterson. "The Theodore Roosevelt award honors these innovative projects that encourage responsible resource management and protection. The winners are among the best of the best."

ACWA is a statewide association of public agencies whose 450 members are responsible for about 90% of the water delivered in California.

NOTE: Digital photos of the bio-mass project are available upon request.

For more information on the project, including a gallery of photos, viist http://cohenlab.pbworks.com/.

ABOVE, Biology graduate student Catherine Hare works with the algae in the waste water pond at the Laguna treatment plant in Santa Rosa.

Jean Wasp
Media Relations Coordinator
University Affairs
(707) 664-2057