News Feature | November 24, 2015

Algae May Help Clean Brewery Waste

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Wastewater is a problem for breweries. They incur major costs sending it to city treatment facilities, since brewery waste is brimming with chemicals and nutrients.

That’s why researchers at Michigan State University are looking for ways to treat brewery wastewater using algae. In a feat of symbiosis, brewery wastewater has the right ingredients for growing algae, and algae have the right composition for cleaning brewery wastewater.

Michigan State University graduate student Jakob Nalley made the discovery. “Growing algae requires a lot of chemicals, like nitrogen and phosphorus. Nalley realized that those were the exact same chemicals in the wastewater from breweries,” WMUK reported. “It means that — in a lab, at least — brewery wastewater is a good environment to help algae grow.”

But his discoveries do not end there. When Nalley removed the algae from the brewery wastewater, the contents were clean. “Not quite drinkable, but clean enough to be recycled back into a brewery to wash its equipment and floors,” the report said.

Nalley sees a potential use for the leftover algae, as well. "If we could mass-cultivate this algae, it'd be a really, really easy alternative to start to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels," he explains. "By no means will it be one day we'll start growing algae and all the sudden the fossil fuels disappear. But it could be a stepping stone into this alternative energy economy."

Given the cost of treating brewery wastewater, many breweries have decided to cut out the local waste plant. For instance, Bell’s Brewery in Comstock, MI, is treating waste at its own facility instead of sending it to the Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant.

"Finding a way to manage the quantities that we were sending down the pipe was really the challenge," Walter Modic, the sustainability specialist for the brewery, explained to WMUK. "I think we were third or fourth in the area in terms of loaded volume to the city. So we were a big user."

Modic gave WMUK a tour of the treatment facility at the brewery. He calls this custom-built facility “the cube.”

“This treatment plant pumps in wastewater through pipes, then squeezes out the big solids, and treats the rest with an ecosystem of tiny bugs. Their job is to eat the chemicals from the water’s sugars and alcohols,” the report said.

“Modic says by the end of the process, the water is clean enough so the city will take it without charging enormous cleaning fees. He says it’s been a lot of trial-and-error so far, but he’s finally feeling a little more comfortable with the new system,” the report said.

Breweries are no stranger to the water tech and policy arena. In fact, some brewers have tried to use sewage to make beer. Clean Water Services, a wastewater operator in Washington County, OR, held a competition over the summer enlisting 10 home brewers to use recycled water to make beer, according to KGW.

And sometimes breweries are targeted for support on water policies. Mounting a "Brewers For Clean Water" campaign under the tagline "Clean Water, Great Beer," the Natural Resources Defense Council lobbied breweries last year to support a controversial EPA clean water proposal. At least forty craft beer companies signed onto the campaign, according to CBC News.

For more stories about the intersection of breweries and wastewater treatment, visit Water Online’s Water & Wastewater Treatment For The Food & Beverage Industry Solutions Center.