Researchers bring their invention–the world’s first bioelectrically enhanced wastewater to energy system–to market
Spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2006, Cambrian Innovation is commercializing a portfolio of environmental solutions based on newly discovered electrically active microbes. By harnessing the power of bio-electricity and advances in electrochemistry, Cambrian Innovation’s products help industrial, agricultural and government customers save money while recovering clean water and clean energy from wastewater streams.
Every year, millions of tons of wood waste produced by commercial timber harvests and forest restoration burn in open piles that send untold amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Thus far, it’s the only economically feasible way to destroy the wood waste. Daniel Schwartz, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington, is working on an inexpensive but convenient system that would convert waste, known as “slash,” into a usable product, while keeping much of that excess CO2 out of the air. Schwartz and his students invented a heat-resistant laminate “blanket” that wraps around a burning slash pile like a kiln. The material is impermeable to air and punctuated with adjustable vents that control air flow, much like the air holes in a typical barbecue. Closing off the vents causes the fire to smolder, rather than burn, creating a chemical process called pyrolysis that turns the wood scraps into charcoal, called biochar. Biochar results when wood or other plant materials are heated in an oxygen-deprived environment, which cooks off all the water and other volatile materials without turning it into ash, as normally occurs with an oxygen-fueled fire. Instead of ash, what’s left is biochar. Credit: Kenneth Faires, University of Washington
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), engineers and co-founders Matt Silver and Justin Buck are bringing their research from the lab to the market. One system, called EcoVolt, generates methane gas from the wastewater by leveraging what is called “electromethanogenesis.” It’s a newly discovered process for producing methane.
“NSF funding of Cambrian Innovation’s research demonstrates our strong interest in supporting small business innovation that leads to novel and greener technological solutions to societal challenges,” says NSF program director Prakash Balan.
Phil Savage and a team of other engineers at the University of Michigan are creating gasoline out of liquefied algae. Algae have long been attractive as a source of renewable fuel. For one thing, they live in water. All the other biofuel feed-stocks, as they’re called, are land based–and a huge hindrance to making enough biofuel is that there’s just not enough spare land. Algae don’t even require good water. In fact, they could be grown on treated sewage, using the waste as their nutrients. The other benefit is algae are voracious growers–as anyone who’s ever owned a fish tank can tell you. In scientific terms, that’s because they’re so efficient at converting sunlight into biomass–much more so than land plants. The goal is to produce gasoline out of liquefied algae. In America, companies make biodiesel out of soybeans and get something on the order of 50 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year from soy; with algae, the estimates range very widely, but you can get anywhere from between 1,000 to 5,000 gallons of bio-oil per acre per year, according to one of the researchers. Credit: From video, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan
The EcoVolt system sends wastewater through a bio-electrochemical reactor. As water filters through it, special bacteria in the reactor eat the organic waste in the water and release electrons as a byproduct. Those electrons travel through a circuit to generate methane, or CH4.
A group of scientists has demonstrated a new way to use sunlight, water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2)–some of the cheapest and most commonplace ‘stuff’ on Earth–to make unlimited amounts of fuel to power almost anything, anywhere. The method uses concentrated heat from the sun to convert water and CO2 into hydrogen (H2) or carbon monoxide (CO). Large amounts of these two gases could be combined to make liquid fuel that fits into America’s existing energy economy. Scientists have long known how to convert H2O and CO2 into H2 and CO. But to do it cheaply and efficiently enough to make the process affordable on a wide scale has been an issue. Part of the problem was the need for expensive and rare elements, such as platinum or iridium, to act as catalysts that encourage the conversion to happen. Sossina Haile, professor of materials science and of chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology and her team took a novel approach; they tried ceria, a material used in the walls of self-cleaning ovens. Ceria is the oxidized or “rust” form of the element cerium, which is more abundant, and therefore cheaper, than other metals that could do the same job. Credit: California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Jointly owned by California Institute of Technology and ETH Zurich
A wireless signal allows the process to be monitored remotely. This very high quality methane is then piped out to an engine, where it’s burned with a small amount of natural gas. It then generates heat and energy. In addition, sensor systems built by Cambrian Innovation can also monitor pollutants, such as fertilizer run-off.