UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

William Oswald, pioneer in the use of algae to treat wastewater, dies at 86

– William J. Oswald, a University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering and of public health, and an innovator in algae biotechnology and natural wastewater treatment, has died. He was 86.

William Oswald
William J. Oswald, near the wastewater treatment ponds at UC Berkeley's Richmond Field Station. Oswald developed a system of "integrated ponds" that takes advantage of two natural biological cycles to replace much of the energy and labor costs of conventional treatment. (Photo courtesy of Saxon Donnelly/UC Berkeley) Photo available for download

Oswald, who was also a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), died Dec. 8, 2005, at his Concord home, six months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Oswald was among the first engineers to study the symbiotic interactions between algae and bacteria in wastewater treatment ponds. It was in the 1950s that Oswald began his research leading to designs of natural treatment systems powered primarily by solar energy, making wastewater treatment more affordable and sustainable.

"William Oswald was a man ahead of his time. He developed and demonstrated sustainable technology decades before sustainability became a popular goal," said Bailey Green, research scientist at LBNL. Green was a former Ph.D. student of Oswald's in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, and a close colleague of his for the past two decades.

Oswald is credited with developing the Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems (AIWPS) technology in which wastewater passes through a series of ponds to be treated. The process involves the use of algae photosynthesis in "high rate ponds" rather than the electro-mechanical aeration devices used in more expensive, conventional wastewater treatment systems. The algae produce oxygen that allows aerobic bacteria to break down remaining contaminants in the water. The water is then reclaimed through a series of tertiary processes for reuse and recycling in such applications as agricultural irrigation.

The study of such natural systems has developed in recent decades into the field of ecological engineering. Thousands of communities throughout the United States have adopted successful natural wastewater treatment systems, although large urban areas that do not have enough land required for ponds or wetlands still use mechanical systems.

Colleagues pointed out that the needs of the developing world - where many people bathe in and collect drinking water from rivers polluted with raw sewage - motivated Oswald's research and the development of simple, affordable and more sustainable wastewater treatment technology that produces renewable energy through methane fermentation and biogas recovery.

"Oswald was a humanitarian above all else," said Green.

In one of his more recent international collaborations, Oswald worked with Green and Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and Hindu priest from Varanasi, India, to study the use of AIWPS technology to treat the sewage from the city and in the Ganges River. Considered the "Mother of India," the Ganges River is used by devout Hindus for daily religious bathing and drinking, despite the fact that it is contaminated by human and industrial wastewater and the remains of cremated bodies. The proposal they developed has been supported by city officials in Varanasi, and is currently under consideration by federal and state authorities in India.

"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 Institute of Technology, an expert on wastewater engineering and a former student of Oswald's.

There have been other applications for Oswald's inventions besides wastewater treatment. High rate ponds are used to produce microscopic algae for the health food industry. Oswald also demonstrated a life support system for the U.S. Air Force space program that used algae to treat astronaut waste while producing distilled water and oxygen. The system, however, has never been used outside the laboratory.

William J. Oswald was born in King City, Calif., on July 6, 1919, and grew up on a ranch in arid central California where his interest in water, agricultural production and human health began.

Oswald's passion for working on affordable sanitation stemmed from several dramatic experiences in his life. As a child in rural central California, he witnessed the choking death of a schoolmate from a roundworm infection caused by poor sanitation. While serving in the U.S. Army as a hospital administrator in Europe after World War II, he coordinated the care of patients suffering from the effects of unsanitary conditions, including contaminated water.

While serving in the U.S. Army in New York, Oswald met his wife, Eileen Francis Simmons, who was a nurse in a platoon that he commanded. They married in 1944 and had four children.

Oswald went on to study at UC Berkeley with support from the federal GI Bill, receiving his B.S. degree in civil engineering in 1950. He stayed on at UC Berkeley to earn his Ph.D. in sanitary engineering, biology and public health in 1957.

That same year, he joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an assistant professor in biomedical and environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health, and in environmental engineering at the College of Engineering. He was also affiliated with the campus's Energy and Resources Group. Oswald was promoted to associate professor in 1963, and to full professor in 1970.

In 2001, Oswald joined LBNL's Earth Sciences Division as a senior staff scientist.

During his tenure at UC Berkeley, he was the primary mentor for more than two dozen doctoral candidates, and served on the thesis committees of over 100 other masters and doctoral students. These former students now continue his work and have adapted his methods worldwide.

''I had a very great admiration for him, for his depth of thinking, for his modesty, for his kindness. He was a great mentor, and his human qualities were precious," said Issayas Tadesse, a recent guest scientist at LBNL who was working with Oswald and Green. Tadesse applied Oswald's AIWPS technology to treat tannery wastewater in his native Ethiopia.

Beyond influencing his field through the work of his former students, Oswald was a prolific writer, authoring more than 400 works published in academic journals, conference proceedings and books. He won several medals and prizes for his research from the national Water Environment Federation and the American Society for Civil Engineers, and was a fellow in the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and a diplomate in the American Academy of Environmental Engineering.

In 2005, the International Society for Applied Phycology presented him with a lifetime achievement award. Colleagues from around the world have also nominated him for the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize.

He retired from teaching at UC Berkeley in 1990, but he continued his research and engineering practice as a scientist at LBNL until the last days of his life.

Just this past year, Oswald and Green were issued two patents - one for a method to establish and optimize methane fermentation in primary wastewater ponds, and the other for an apparatus to recover biogas from methane fermentation. Oswald was also president and founding partner of Oswald Green, LLC, an environmental technology company, and of Oswald Engineering Associates, Inc., an engineering services company. Green said that Oswald designed well over 100 wastewater treatment facilities around the world during his 60-year career.

Oswald is survived by his wife, Eileen Oswald of Concord; sons, Patrick Oswald of Alamo and Michael Oswald of Chula Vista; eight grandchildren; and sister, Roberta Oswald of King City. Oswald was predeceased by his son, William Oswald Jr., and daughter, Joy Himsl.

A symposium and celebration of Oswald's life is being planned on campus for spring 2006. Interested parties should contact Green at fbgreen@lbl.gov.

Memorial donations may be made to the Bitterwater Parent Teacher Fund, c/o Patrick Oswald, 149 Alamo Springs Dr., Alamo, CA 94507.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]