Sun, Nov 14, 2010

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 ALGATEC is a Research for SME project included in the Seventh R+D Framework Programme of the European Union. Its objective is to propose a cost-efficient system for the on-site treatment and reuse of washing water generated in small olive oil mills, with high pollutant content, by means of an affordable and compact photobioreactor using microalgae, capable to recover and recycle the majority of the drinkable water used in the process of olives washing. Furthermore, the problem of the disposal of wastewater from olive oil mills will be reduced because the reutilisation of the washing water will diminish the overall volume of wastewater, with both economical and environmental benefits. The current methods of wastewater disposal increase the overall production costs, and additionally they are also environmentally unacceptable and extremely inefficient in terms of water use. Thus, the proposed project will enable all participating SMEs to improve their competitive position opening a market of about 12,000 olive oil producers only in Europe.The patented concept of a photobioreactor using algae intends to use the free and nearly unlimited available source sunlight in order to reduce the water consumption, and to improve its quality by algae nutrient uptake. In addition, the system captures CO2 from the atmosphere for the biological processes.

To achieve the project objectives, ALGATEC will create a procedure for the treatment and reuse of washing water from the olive cleaning process. The ALGATEC process will include the pre-treatment of the washing water (preliminary filtration with a laminar settlement tank), the main treatment with a photobioreactor using microalgae and the post-photobioreactor treatment based on membrane filtration.

Duration: 24 months

Budget: 1.070.162 €



  • BIOAZUL S.L. (Spain) – Coordinator
  • Valorsabio Unipessoal, Lda (Portugal)
  • ISITEC GmbH (Germany)
  • Biot Microgen (Spain)


  • Sociedad Cooperativa Agricola Olivarera Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (Spain)
  • Union Of Agricultural Cooperatives Of Peza Of Iraklion Prefecture (Greece)


  • University of Granada (Spain)
  • University of Viterbo (Italy)
  • NAGREF(Greece)
  • TTZ-Bremerhaven (Germany)

Overall Objectives:

  • To provide an economic and feasible technical solution for reducing the use of drinkable water in the olives washing process, improving the management of drinkable water.
  • To diminish the overall effluent of polluted water produced in olive oil mills, reducing the wastewater management costs and the environmental impact of wastes.
  • To increase the competitiveness of the European olive oil industry through a cost-effective waste treatment and an improved water management.

Scientific and technological objectives:

  • To establish a cost-effective wastewater treatment and drinkable water recycling system for olives washing water.
  • To build a prototype of a photobioreactor using microalgae, adapting a patented technology to the specific needs of the treatment of the olive oil washing wastewater.
  • To collect information about the main requirements for the system to be installed in the end-user industry, analysing the overall situation of producers in different EU countries (i.e. production amount and duration, WW).

Socio-economic objectives:

  • To reduce production costs in the olive oil sector through recycling and reutilisation of water.
  • To answer to the current need of increasing the sustainability of European agricultural sectors by implementing a solution that will enhance the current water and wastewater management systems.
  • To enable the olive oil producers in Europe keep its leadership in the olive oil market, with non-European countries entering the market.
  • To increase employment in the sector by capacity building in state-of-the-art technologies and creation of new jobs in the design and construction of the proposed systems.



The European Union (EU) is the most important producer of olives in the world. For the period from 2001 and 2007, 2.2 million tonnes of olive oil were produced in about 12.000 olive mills in Europe, which accounts for the 80% of the world production. These producers are mainly placed in the basin of the Mediterranean Sea, being Spain, Italy and Greece the biggest producers.

Olive oil consumption is steadily growing worldwide thanks to the acknowledgement of the benefits of olive oil on health. Although the European Community is the main olive oil consumer, the demand in countries like United States and Syria has increased significantly in recent years. On the other hand, non-European countries like Turkey, Syria and Tunisia have entered the market and harden competition, threatening European Union producers’ dominant position. Besides the market expansion, the olive oil sector in the European Union will have to solve some long-standing environmental problems to keep its predominant situation.

During the olive processing, large amounts of highly pollutant liquid wastes are generated. This poses serious problems to olive oil mills since waste management involves additional costs and logistical problems, especially for the SMEs. As a matter of fact, olive production sector is characterised by fragmentation and by small olive-growing holdings. Thus, in Italy and Spain, on average one recipient in five produces less than 100 kg oil. This applies to more than 40% of Portuguese growers and two-thirds of growers in France. Therefore, the olive oil sector needs from cost-effective solutions to meet environmental regulations without neglecting productivity.

Before oil extraction, olives undergo a series of treatments and operations. First operation is the washing to eliminate the impurities collected during harvest and temporary storage. The water used in this process (washing water, WW) must be drinkable for obvious reasons of food hygiene. About 50 litres of water are required to treat 100 kilos of olives. Hence, an enormous amount of drinkable water in Mediterranean countries is consumed by this process (about 5 billions of litres annually). Such huge amount of water is mostly required in rural areas which, in contrast, very often exhibit serious shortage of water.

Moreover, chemical analysis of the water after the washing process shows effluents with high level of toxicity. This is mainly due to the strong presence of phenols, which are very difficult to remove because of their hydrophilic characteristics and low biodegradability. Currently, there are not generally applied systems used by olive processing firms for pollutants disposal and WW recycling. Therefore, olive oil producers in some countries often mix WW with the wastewater from olive oil extraction (olive mill wastewater, OMW), which is the most dangerous residual of olive oil processing, and send the mixture to the disposal treatment. This procedure, due to the increased effluent volume and dilution, will increase the overall disposal cost of the process. In many other cases, in order to avoid increased costs, producers use the WW for irrigation or simply send it to sewage. This has serious environmental impacts, since the water is acidic and has high content of pollutants, phenols in particular. Soils analysis after WW spreading has revealed high content of pollutants and unusual pH.

In view of the specific needs of the olive oil sector for WW treatment and recycling, ALGATEC proposes a simple and efficient treatment of the washing water by adopting a three step treatment which integrates the advantages of different methods that, applied singly, have not achieved the desired results. This treatment consists on:

1. Preliminary filtration: filtration with laminar settlement tanks to remove suspended solids.

2. Treatment with photobioreactor using microalgae: A photobioreactor using photosynthetic microorganisms (microalgae) for biological wastewater treatment is the core of the whole WW treatment process. This technology, has been found effective for removal of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants. It has been developed by one of the proposers and applied successfully to other types of wastewater, like domestic wastewater.

Photobioreactor performance on domestic effluent treatment with 3-5 hours retention time. Valorsabio.
Parameter Removal efficiency (%)
Nitrogen 95
Phosphorus 97
COD 85


Photobioreactors are fermenters in which phototrophic microorganisms, such as microalgae, are cultivated. During the photosynthetic microbial cell growth and propagation, production of various substances occurs: microalgae (blue-green and green algae) use sunlight and CO2 to produce complex organic matter with the release of molecular oxygen. The potential of such biotechnology has been explored in many different ways.

For microalgae cultivation only simple nutrients need to be supplied: N, P, traces of certain metals and CO2. Therefore, if the culture medium is an effluent for wastewater treatment, nutrients are already in the medium, and the sunlight energy is a renewable source of energy easily available in the olive oil producer countries. That means that microalgae can easily grow in the photobioreactor while removing N and P from the WW. At the same time, other microorganisms such as heterotrophic bacteria are generated within the system. These microorganisms, in a symbiotic relationship with microalgae, take the oxygen released by microalgae to oxidise organic matter producing CO2, what leads to a reduction of the COD/BOD of the WW.

3. Post-photobioreactor treatment: Once the water is discharged from the photobioreactor units, it is necessary to separate the biomass from the liquid phase by a membrane filtration system where the biomass is concentrated and the permeate is pure water, ready to be reused. The concentrated biomass can be reintroduced into the system depending on the concentration of the culture in suspension in the photobioreactor. On the contrary, if the culture medium is very dense it must be diluted and no biomass should be reintroduced into the system.

Treatment with membrane purification technologies have the following advantages with respect to other technologies:

- They are much more energy efficient compared to heat-driven purification (distillation).

- No addition of chemicals is required.

- No energy-intensive phase change is required.

- It is more affordable in comparison to other techniques.

- It requires only a short time for start-up, which is consistent with the short duration of the olives processing campaign that lasts from 4 up to 6 months.

The use of membrane technology will make the system extremely innovative and economically competitive. In fact membrane technology currently represents one of the most useful separation techniques due to its low environmental impact and low energy consumption.

Role of Bioazul:

Bioazul will be the general, administrative and financial coordinator of the whole project. Besides, it will also develop some technical tasks: During the first four months it will leader the study about the functional and legal requirements of the system, characterization of the washing water and technical specifications of the prototypes requirements. It will also contribute to monitoring field test of the ALGATEC system, especially the membranes. Regarding the dissemination activities, Bioazul will be in charge of the establishment and operation of the project website as well as other actions.

For further information please visit http://www.algatec.net/

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