The University of Maryland, in partnership with the Maryland Department of Transportation Port Administration (MDOT MPA) and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is piloting an innovative sustainable technology to help reduce pollution, improve the water and air quality, and create renewable energy in and around the Port of Baltimore.
Stephanie Lansing, Ph.D., associate professor in UMD’s Department of Environmental Science and Technology, is leading the pilot project, working alongside UMD faculty members Patrick Kangas, Ph.D., and Peter May, Ph.D. Kangas and May built a treatment system that uses algae as a filtration system to remove excess nutrients from the water. The project will not only combat this issue, but Lansing is using the algae produced from the treatment process as a sustainable energy source.
“What I love about this project is that we are taking traditional agricultural practices and water quality work and applying it to an urban setting in a unique way that hasn’t really been done before,” said Lansing. “We are cleaning up the Bay, improving water and air quality, reducing pollution, and creating renewable energy using innovative green technologies for the Port all at once.”
Growing algae as a filtration system is fast and efficient. Water from the Patapsco River, which is next to the Port, is fed into a runway that is 200 feet long and 6 feet wide. The runway is used to grow algae that pulls out the nitrates and phosphates from the water for its natural growth processes. The water that is cycled back into the river is then cleared of nutrient runoff that can cause imbalances and issues in the Bay. Instead, what is returned is oxygen rich, clean water, improving water and air quality around the Port.
Algae grows quickly and is harvested by the Port once a week and fed into a series of three digesters that are housed in small greenhouse-like structures that break down the algae. This process produces methane-enriched biogas. The biogas can be used as a supplement to power a fuel cell that produces electricity.
“We are harvesting very high quality methane gas from the algae so far to power our fuel cell. From manure, we are used to seeing 55% or 60% methane, but we are seeing 75% methane or higher from the algae, making it very efficient,” explained Dr. Lansing. “Because the algae grows so quickly and is easy to harvest, it makes a great consistent source of biogas when fed into the digesters.”
Currently, the fuel cell is only being used to power flood lights around the digesters. The goal is that the water pump can be powered by the biogas as well, making this a completely sustainable and closed system for this small-scale pilot project.
“If we can show that this is economically feasible and determine how much space we need to clean how much water and produce how much electricity, we can hopefully scale this up from a pilot project and create something viable that we can use to improve the sustainability and environmental footprint of the Port,” said Barbara McMahon of the Port Administration. “Our partnership with MARAD and the University of Maryland has been a huge help and very rewarding. We are excited to see what the future holds.”