Q: You created a company to help solve some of these environmental issues. What does your company do?
A: At microTERRA, we take fish farm wastewater and give it to our microalgae. The microalgae feed on the waste in the water. When they finish eating all the waste, the water can be reused. This saves a lot of water. It also helps stop downstream pollution that will destroy ecosystems.
We use a very particular strain of microalgae. When our microalgae photosynthesizes, it produces protein. We then process the protein from the microalgae into food for the fish.
Q: How do you grow the microalgae?
A: Microalgae are microscopic. So, we start in the lab on a small scale. We know from the lab what the microalgae like, what they need to grow, and where they thrive in general. But because we work with farming, we have to scale up a lot because agriculture is huge.
Q: So, to scale it up, you have to grow massive amounts of microalgae?
A: We use a bioreactor. It’s basically the house of the microalgae. Our whole system has different parts. We have pretreatment [in the lab]; we have bioreactors where the microalgae grow; and then a harvester to collect the biomass. [Our] challenge was constructing something that can hold large quantities of wastewater. It had to be cheap, easy to manage, and low maintenance.
Microalgae convert excess nutrients in water into protein and release oxygen.
Q: Is it dangerous to work with wastewater?
A: Wastewater is full of harmful bacteria. We use gloves and try not to touch our faces. We also wear masks. In the lab, we wear gowns in addition to masks and gloves.
Everything [in the lab] has to be disinfected a couple of times. We also use a fancy fan that blows air in one direction so that our microbiology doesn’t get contaminated.
Flores examines a tank full of wastewater and algae.
A farm creates wastewater.
Wastewater is processed with microalgae.
Clean water and protein are produced.
Protein is made into fish food.
Food is used to feed fish on
Q: Do you have any advice for people who might want to become environmental scientists?
A: I would say to start on small projects. Think of different ways in which you can reduce waste or pollutants. It could be something at home like recycling waste or having a tiny water treatment pond. Every tiny experiment counts! Just remember to tell everyone about what you are doing, because you will find other people are doing similar stuff and maybe you can share ideas and solve problems together.