BSEL Tag

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – A method of converting a biofuel waste product into a usable and valuable commodity has been discovered by researchers at Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Converting algae to biofuels is a two-step process. The first, developed by PNNL, applies high pressure and high temperature to algae to create bio oil. The second converts that bio oil into biofuel, which can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

It’s that first step, called hydrothermal liquefaction, that produces waste — approximately 25 to 40 percent of carbon and 80 percent of nutrients from the algae are left behind in wastewater streams.

Bionatural gas and fertilizer

The wastewater is generally hard to process because it contains a variety of different chemicals in small concentrations, said Birgitte K. Ahring, professor at WSU Tri-Cities’ Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory. But Ahring and her team have found that adapting anaerobic microbes — microbes that live without oxygen — to break down the remaining residue is a viable option. Through this process, the material becomes degradable and gets transformed into a bionatural gas without the use of harsh chemicals. The solid material that remains can also be applied as a fertilizer or recycled back into the hydrothermal liquefaction process for further use.

Birgitte Ahring, left, with his research team
WSU Professor Birgitte Ahring, center, points to test sample, with her research team

The results of the team’s research are published this month in Bioresource Technology. The team also consists of:

  • Keerthi Srinivas, WSU postdoctoral research associate
  • Sebastian Fernandez, WSU research assistant
  • Andrew Schmidt, of PNNL’s chemical and biological processes development group
  • Marie Swita, of PNNL’s chemical and biological processes development group

Don’t waste waste

“It has always been my mantra that we shouldn’t waste waste,” Ahring said. “We had an idea that we could turn this waste product into something useful, such as a fertilizer. Our findings revealed that we could use this waste product as something much more.”

The ability to convert a waste product into a usable commodity provides algal biorefineries with a solution to a large problem, Ahring said.

“After removing the solids, about 10 percent of the output is bio oil, with the remaining 90 percent being a waste byproduct,” Schmidt said. “The fact that we’ve developed an alternative method to recycle or treat the leftover material means it’s more economical to produce the bio oil, making the potential for commercial use of the process more likely.”

Sewage sludge and wastewater

Ahring said the team’s results were so promising that they are now partnering with PNNL on its conversion of sewage sludge to fuel using a similar strategy for the wastewater.

“Today, sewage sludge is found throughout the world,” Ahring said. “Creating a process to produce biofuels, bio-natural gas, and nutrients from this material would be of major importance. The current study has demonstrated that nothing should ever be regarded as a waste, but instead as a resource.”

Schmidt said PNNL’s partnership with WSU allowed each team to focus on different aspects of the biomass conversion.  The collaboration is further enhanced by the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, a facility PNNL and WSU built together on the WSU Tri-Cities campus nearly a decade ago.

“PNNL and WSU researchers interacted frequently on the project,” said Schmidt.   “While PNNL engineers focused on converting the algae to bio oil, the WSU team was able to delve deeply into fundamental research of wastewater conversion with microbes, which included taking advantage of unique analytical capabilities on the PNNL campus.”

A WSU alumnus himself, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WSU, Schmidt said he’s excited to team on additional programs and projects aligned with goals to grow the collaboration between PNNL and WSU.

 

Contacts:

RICHLAND, Wash. – Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities have been awarded a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant to explore the market potential of their biojet fuel research.

Bin Yang, associate professor of biological systems engineering and principal investigator for the grant, and his team have spent several years developing a process for transforming lignin, a polymer that makes plants woody and rigid, and currently a waste product in the biofuels production process, into hydrocarbon molecules that can one-day be certified as jet fuel.

Libing Zhang

Libing Zhang

Yang said by leveraging research results from projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation and The Boeing Company, he and his team have successfully demonstrated a new, water-based process for deconstructing and recovering lignin from biomass and converting it into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons that may be certified as jet fuel in the near future. Yang currently holds a patent on the process.

“Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate a flexible catalytic process that selectively converts all the carbon in the lignin into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons at minimal cost,” he said.

Libing Zhang, a WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate and the entrepreneurial lead of the project, said currently commercial airlines are facing pressure to reduce emissions, which is why they may have an interest in seeing a lignin-derived alternative fuel brought to market.

“The airlines see alternative jet fuel as a strategic need, helping guarantee smooth business operations and a long-term and sustainable jet fuel supply,” Zhang said. “Our conversion process can potentially reduce jet fuel cost to end users by using lignin waste from refineries and less expensive catalytic upgrading to jet fuel.”

Zhang said the NSF I-Corps program helps leading researchers develop a business platform for their research and technology that could one-day change the world, while not trying to “reinvent the wheel” by recreating processes and strategies that are already working well within the industry.

For the NSF I-Corps grant, Yang and his team are working under the mentorship of Terri L. Butler from the University of Washington for the business aspects of the project.

“The NSF I-Corps program encourages researchers to step out of the academic environment and listen to the needs of industry,” Butler said. “The researchers can then determine if their technology solves an important problem or if their research efforts should head in a different direction. This is the approach our team has taken as we work on possible business models for our biojet fuel technology while considering the needs of customer segments, key partners, cost structures and revenue streams.”

WSU is leading the nation in biofuel production. In November, Alaska Airlines made the first commercial flight using alternative jet fuel from forest residuals produced through WSU-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. Read more here.

WSU also has an NSF I-Corps site led by the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture that provides training and funding to find commercial applications of new business ideas and technologies. The free site program promotes entrepreneurism of faculty, student and staff by preparing participants for submission of a proposal to NSF to become an I-Corps team. Learn more here.

 

News media contacts:
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-7640, binyang@tricity.wsu.edu
Libing Zhang, WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate, libing.zhang@wsu.edu
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-7333, maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu