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Dr. Perry L. McCarty, Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering, Emeritus, Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford
Anaerobic processes represent complex ecological systems with numerous species working together synergistcally to convert raw organic ma er into food used by animals and humans. However, anaerobic microbes were once thought to be too slow and ine cient with few capabilities and thus of limited value for solving environmental problems. While some anaerobes could convert organic wastes into methane, a potentially useful biofuel, suficient fundamental understanding of the process was lacking to make the process more generally useful for treatment of most industrial and municipal wastewaters. Emerging hazardous organic chemicals were thought to be much less biodegradable by anaerobic than by aerobic biological processes. Such beliefs have now been changed. Over me with improved thermodynamic and kinetic knowledge of anaerobic ecosystems and improved reactor designs, anaerobic systems are now replacing aerobic approaches for industrial wastewater treatment, and are on the threshold of doing the same for municipal wastewater treatment. Anaerobic processes are now known to be more efficient than aerobic processes, produce rather than consume energy, result in less waste biosolids production, are superior at hazardous chemical removal, and have a smaller footprint. Many hazardous organic compounds such as DDT, PCBs, and chlorinated solvents are readily degraded by anaerobic, but not by aerobic processes. Because of their great potential for solving environmental problems, even more needs to be learned about anaerobic microbial ecology, not only for pollution prevention and clean water and energy production, but also for greater recovery of other valuable resources locked in human wastes, such as nutrients for crops and new chemicals with economical value.