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William J. Oswald 1919—2005
William J. Oswald 1919—2005

William J. Oswald, PhD, a scientist who pioneered many ways to use algae—from treating wastewater and generating energy to facilitating space travel—died of pancreatic cancer on December 8, 2005, at his home in Concord, California. He was 86. Dr. Oswald was a professor emeritus in civil and environmental engineering and a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

Oswald was among the first engineers to study the symbiotic interactions between algae and bacteria in wastewater treatment ponds. For over 60 years he combined biological and engineering knowledge to create many valuable applications for the ability of algae to make remarkably efficient use of solar energy.

The most widely used of the applications he developed is the Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems (AIWPS), a technology in which wastewater passes through a series of ponds that use algae photosynthesis rather than electro-mechanical aeration devices to aerate the water. The algae-produced oxygen allows aerobic bacteria to break down contaminants in the water. Oswald designed well over 100 wastewater treatment facilities around the world.1

"Bill Oswald has contributed to wastewater treatment, and hence to public health, in the less developed world, more than anybody else I know," said Gedaliah Shelef, professor emeritus of Israel's Technion Institutes of Technology, an expert on wastewater engineering and a former student of Oswald's.1

Many benefits flow from an algae pond treatment system: the algae can be harvested as a protein-rich food for animals; the cleansed water can be reused for irrigation or as a coolant; the sludge from the bottom of the pond can be added to the soil for a high humus fertilizer; microalgae can absorb heavy metals; settling and digestion chambers can produce methane for use as a fuel; and using microalgae to treat wastewater saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. And since algae can do all this work in seawater, precious freshwater can be conserved.2

Dr. Oswald's largest AIWPS design was for the purpose of purifying the Ganges River, which is heavily used for daily religious bathing and drinking.3

Oswald's inventions went beyond treating wastewater. Early in his career, he demonstrated a life support system for the US Air Force space program that used algae to purify astronaut waste while producing distilled water and oxygen.2

Dr. Oswald's interest in the nutritional value of algae led to the development of production systems for spirulina (Arthrospira maxima Setchell & Gardner, Oscillatoriaceae) and dunaliella (Dunaliella salina [Dunal] Teodor, Dunaliellaceae). One of his graduate students set up the first spirulina production plant in the United States. Oswald also assisted in the establishment of a pond system growing dunaliella for commercial production of glycerol and beta-carotene.2

Born in King City, California, on July 6, 1919, Oswald grew up on an arid ranch where his interest in water, agricultural production, and human health began. Two early experiences accounted for his passion for working on affordable sanitation. As a child in rural California, he witnessed the choking death of a schoolmate from a roundworm infection caused by poor sanitation. While serving as a hospital administrator in Europe after World War II, he coordinated the care of patients suffering from the effects of contaminated water.

When he came home, Oswald studied at UC Berkeley, earning a degree in civil engineering in 1950. He stayed on to get a doctorate in sanitary engineering, biology, and public health in 1957, the same year he joined the Berkeley faculty. In 2001 Dr. Oswald joined Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a senior staff scientist.1,4 He retired from teaching at Berkeley in 1990, but continued his research and engineering practice as an entrepreneur and a scientist at LBNL until the last days of his life.1

In 2005, the International Society for Applied Phycology (the branch of botany dealing with seaweed and algae) presented him with a lifetime achievement award. Colleagues from around the world have also nominated him for the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize.1

"William Oswald developed and demonstrated sustainable technology decades before sustainability was a buzzword," said Bailey Green, research scientist at LBNL and a colleague of Oswald's for the past two decades. "He was a man ahead of his time, and a humanitarian above all else."1

—Nancy Dennis


1. Yang S. William Oswald, pioneer in the use of algae to treat wastewater, dies at 86 [press release]. UC Berkeley Media Relations; December 19, 2005. Available at: Accessed April 13, 2006.

2. Oswald WJ. My sixty years in applied algology. Journal of Applied Phycology 2003;15:99-106. Available at: Accessed April 13, 2006.

3. Sanders R. Saving the "Mother of India": Berkeley Technology May Clean Up Ganges River. Berkeleyan. November 18, 1998. Available at: Accessed April 13, 2006.

4. Martin D. W. J. Oswald, 86, Algae Miracle Worker, Dies. The New York Times. December 21, 2005;Obituaries:C20.