- Keep the commercial viability of the technology in mind, not just solving the problem
- Are there other applications for the technology beyond the intended industry?
There are around 4500 dairy farms in Victoria. Together they produced close six billion litres of milk from one million cows in 2010-11—that's the same as 2400 Olympic swimming pools.
In fact, Victoria produces around 86 per cent of Australia’s dairy product exports, worth almost $2 billion in 2011-12.
One dairy product you’re not likely to see in the supermarket is the wastewater generated from daily cleaning. Cow manure and other waste makes this water rich in compounds and micro-organisms that can damage river ecosystems.
The Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), responsible for government oversight of the state’s dairy industry, was interested in investigating ways to more responsibly manage dairy effluent.
Barrie Bradshaw from DEPI says, 'the main environmental issues are around water quality and nutrients getting into waterways as well as greenhouse gases off treatment ponds'.
Working with Victorian niche bio-solutions business Algae Enterprises, DEPI successfully ran a Market Validation Program project to demonstrate the potential of algae in treating dairy effluent on a farm-scale at DEPI’s Ellinbank dairy research facility.
Secret lives of algae
Algae are very simple creatures similar in many ways to plants.
As Dr Alex Faber, Algae Enterprises' Chief Science Officer, explains, 'to me algae are actually floating solar cells that self-replicate using cheap raw materials. They capture solar energy and they store that energy in the form of carbohydrates and fats and proteins which we can utilise for our own good.
'We developed what we called the Photoluminescent Algae System, which is a system of thin film plastics embedded with fluorescent dyes. The system alters incoming sunlight to improve algae growth by fine-tuning the colours and wavelengths of light that reaches the algae.'
Algae also need sunlight and food like any other living organisms. In the case of dairy, effluent provides a rich source of raw materials for algal ‘food’.
As Faber explains, 'What happens is that the algae actually remove all of the waste components from the wastewater, producing a very dense algae biomass (or clump) and a water stream that can be recycled for irrigation or other use on the farm.
'That algae biomass is then collected in a concentrated form and put into a digester system that breaks down the algae and converts it into a methane gas to be used as a renewable energy source.'
Algae Enterprises CEO Ayal Marek has seen this project deliver results on dairy applications, 'The challenge has been implementing this technology in a way that is commercially viable for farmers. Cleaning the water was the main target, but you can add value for farmers, and that’s what we were able to do'.
Modules for large and smaller farms
The completed project now has scope for further development.
Marek says, 'now that we’ve completed the project, we are developing the system as modules, which will suit both larger and smaller farms. We’re about to roll out three of these modularised systems over the next year, with the aim of increasing beyond that.'
'We're also very excited about a product we’re working on for treating human effluent, which is targeted at improving the profitability of waste water plants'.
This project was funded under the Victorian Government's Market Validation Program (MVP). The new Driving Business Innovation program builds on the MVP.
Victorian niche bio-solutions business Algae Enterprises used this program to demonstrate the potential of algae in treating dairy effluent on a farm-scale at DEPI’s Ellinbank dairy research facility. They now have a modular product that is being rolled out, with plans for expansion.