Company Turns Waste Juice Into Energy

  • Millions of gallons of wastewater is produced by cleaning operations at the Welch's. Some of the sugar in the wastewater is being used to make electricity. (Photo by Lisa Ann Pinkerton)

Tiny single-celled organisms could become the giants of
energy production in the near future. Scientists are
using bacteria to convert waste into hydrogen energy.
Lisa Ann Pinkerton recently watched a vat of microbes
turning wastewater into electricity:

Transcript

Tiny single-celled organisms could become the giants of
energy production in the near future. Scientists are
using bacteria to convert waste into hydrogen energy.
Lisa Ann Pinkerton recently watched a vat of microbes
turning wastewater into electricity:


More than 17 million gallons of grape juice is sitting in what amounts to be a huge
refrigerator. It’s Welch’s grape juice ready to be bottled. About the size of a
gymnasium, the cooler’s covered with tile and the juice is stored in big
stainless steel tanks.


Paul Zorzie is the plant manager. He says they have to regularly clean the
tanks. And first they rinse them with water to clean out the remaining juice:


“Juice would be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent
sugar, so what goes down the drain might be .3.”


Since there’s still a little bit of grape juice and sugar in that wastewater, it can
still be used. Behind the plant, the faint smell of grape juice wafts from a
bubbling tank of wastewater. It looks kinda like a purple jacuzzi. In a nearby
shed, Gannon University Professor Rick Diz has built a pilot system to covert
the sugar in that grape juice wastewater into electricity. With the help of the
Ohio biotechnology firm NanoLogix, he’s coaxing millions of microorganisms
to consume the sugar and produce hydrogen:


“The sort of bacteria that produce hydrogen and
actually other bio fuels of one sort or another just
love sugar. Just like for people, sugar is the easiest
thing to digest for many organisms.”


Diz says if you keep introducing food that sugar from the watered-down grape
juice, the microbe population will double every 24-48 minutes. He’s trying to
keep the conditions just right to encourage hydrogen-producing microbes to
grow, while at the same time discouraging methane producing ones. They feed
on hydrogen, and it can be a careful balancing act.


When the microbes produce enough gas, the pressure trips a switch and the
hydrogen is pumped into a slender, high-pressure holding tank:


“And so far we’re been quite successful. We are in fact
producing hydrogen gas, we have used that gas to run an
engine that generated electricity for us on just a
demonstration purpose.”


You can imagine, there are all sorts of industries that create waste sugar
water, from fruit juices, and sodas to candy makers. So there’s lots of
potential to generate hydrogen and then electricity from residual sugar in
wastewater.


But, Diz says the Welch’s system is the only one in the US to successfully do
this outside a laboratory setting. The Welch’s plant in Erie, Pennsylvania
spends about one-and-a-half million dollars a year for electricity and
wastewater treatment each. It hopes a large-scale project that Diz will build
this spring can put a dent in those bills:


“Welch’s is certainly one of the first companies that we’ve hear of who’s expressed
interest in producing hydrogen from microorganisms.”


That’s Patrick Serfass at the National Hydrogen Association. He says
developing renewable ways to generate hydrogen is ideal for a greener energy
sector. But the methods have to be economically worth it:


“The trick is to make the leap from the laboratory to real world applications, and using the hydrogen to either produce
electricity or meet some other energy need.”


Serfass says if Welch’s makes good on it’s plans to built a large demonstration
bio reactor it’ll be a major step for renewable hydrogen and an example to the
rest of the nation’s over 200 beverage makers and bottlers.


For the Environment Report, I’m Lisa Ann Pinkerton.

Related Links

Composting in the City

  • Backyard composting isn't quite as inticing a hobby in the wintertime. (Photo by Karen Kelly)

Composting has always been a part of farm life, but a growing number of city folks are trying it as well. The GLRC’s Karen Kelly is one of those city dwellers. And she found if composting isn’t convenient, it doesn’t get done:

Transcript

Composting has always been a part of farm life, but a growing
number of city folks are trying it as well. The GLRC’s Karen
Kelly is one of those city dwellers, and she found if composting
isn’t convenient, it doesn’t get done:


“So we’re going to put in our banana peels, and the oatmeal that
nobody ate, and I’m going to break some of this up because apparently
it breaks down faster if it’s in smaller pieces. So right now we’ve got,
half a scone, a bowl of oatmeal, some banana peel… ”


It’s just after breakfast and my kitchen is covered with dirty dishes.
Some of the food is heading into the garbage, the rest I’m going
toss into the composter. It kind of looks like a brown garbage can
with a lid, but it takes about half my garbage and turns it back into
soil.


I started about a year ago, when I finally got a small backyard
where I live here in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. First, I asked
my friends Connie and Dan how they do it.


“How would you guys describe your approach?”


“Laissez faire.”


“Yeah. It’s really a shame that everybody doesn’t do this because it can
be really easy. Just put it in a box and let it sit there.”


I liked the sound of that hands-off approach, but I was also
wondering what to put in and what I needed to leave out. So, I gave
George Reimer a call. He’s the city of Ottawa’s composting expert.


“ust stick with kitchen scraps, vegetables, fruit scraps…plants that
you have from the gardening season, that type of thing.”


“Okay, okay. So no animal products basically?”


“Exactly.”


Once you have a good mix of kitchen scraps, leaves and grass, the
best thing for compost is to mix it around on a regular basis. When
you add that oxygen to the microorganisms already in the garbage,
it breaks the waste down even faster.


It’s not as easy as it sounds – especially if you compost in a plastic
drum. Just imagine sticking a pitchfork into your garbage can and
trying to flip over a pile of wet dirt.


So, armed with that information, I asked George if he could take a
look at our progress after our first week of composting. He stooped
over to pull open a sliding door at the bottom of the container.


“Oh, you haven’t got anything in there, have you?”


“Well I did put some things in there…”


“Yeah, you need to put a slab down or dig it into the ground
because obviously something’s gone in there and removed it all.”


“Yeah, there’s no food in there. Okay. All right then. That was
a week’s worth of squirrel feeding.”


“Yeah exactly.”


(Sound of bricks laying)


So, the next day we go to a big box store to get some bricks. We
lay them all around the base of the composter. The squirrels are defeated.
A few weeks later, I see a huge raccoon shuffling across the backyard.
It knocks the top off the composter and climbs in.


We drive back to the big box store and buy some flat, heavy bricks
to lay on top of the lid. We also buy a few bags of fertilizer, of
course because we still have no compost. I think, this is starting to
feel like work and to be honest – I find it disgusting.


(Sound of brick noise)


“So now, it’s even more challenging to do this.”


(Sound of dumping)


“Ewww. A lot of it is sticking to the pot, which is disgusting but
alright. Uhh, brick back up, auxiliary bricks, okay.”


Now that I had to move those bricks, I was less likely to run out
with just the dinner scraps, and we weren’t mixing the compost very
often, either. So, I tried to remind myself of why I started doing this.


For one, it seemed like a shame to throw vegetable scraps into a
plastic bag and send them to a landfill. Especially when landfill
space is so tight that some Canadian cities are shipping their
garbage to the U.S.


Plus, we have a garden, which could use the nutrients from the
compost. According to George Reimer, those nutrients stick
around a lot longer than the ones found in commercial fertilizer.


I knew all that, and yet, on a stinking hot day in July – and the
composter was stinking because we rarely turned it – I officially
stopped. For a while… for six months. Until recently, when my
guilty conscience prodded me out the door with a bowl of kitchen
scraps.


(Sound of walking in snow)


“We’ve got snow on the ground and a bowl of fresh vegetable
scraps. Umm, interesting. It’s about a third full so there must be
compost under there somewhere.”


Last time I looked, the container had twice that amount in it.
Which makes me think that most of the food has broken down into
something we can finally use on the garden. It gives me an
incentive to start over. Plus, in a few years, I’ll have to compost.


Ottawa will join at least 18 other Canadian cities where residents
are required to throw food scraps into a separate container, and
hey, if all else fails, there’s nothing like a new law to get you
motivated.


For the GLRC, I’m Karen Kelly.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Sewage in the Lakes

  • Workers build Toledo's wet weather treatment system. The system is expected to go online next fall. It will treat water in the event of a storm. (Photo by Mark Brush)

Point source pollution means just that. It’s pollution that comes from a
single point; usually out the end of a pipe. It’s easy to identify. Since
the passage of the Clean Water Act more than 30 years ago, most of that kind
of pollution has been cleaned up, but today, there are still some pipes dumping
pollution into lakes and rivers, but Mark Brush reports stopping that remaining
pollution isn’t that easy:

Transcript

We’re continuing our look at Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Lester Graham
is our guide through the series. He says the next report is part of coverage
of a threat called point source pollution.


Point source pollution means just that. It’s pollution that comes from a
single point; usually out the end of a pipe. It’s easy to identify. Since
the passage of the Clean Water Act more than 30 years ago, most of that kind
of pollution has been cleaned up, but today, there are still some pipes dumping
pollution into lakes and rivers, but Mark Brush reports stopping that remaining
pollution isn’t that easy:


(Sound of the Maumee)


We’re on the banks of the Maumee River near Toledo, Ohio. Sandy Binh
brought us here to describe what she saw in the river several years ago when
she was out boating with some friends.


“When there was a heavy rain maybe five years or so ago this is where we saw
a sea of raw sewage in this whole area. It was like, I mean it was like chunks
everywhere. It was just disgusting.”


Binh reported it and found that the city couldn’t do anything about it. That’s
because Toledo’s sewage treatment plant is at the end of what’s called a combined
sewer system. These systems carry both storm water from city streets, and raw
sewage from homes and businesses. If too much water comes into the plant, a
switch is flipped, and the sewage goes straight into the river.


(Sound of treatment plant)


Steve Hallett manages engineering at the wastewater treatment plant for the
city of Toledo. He says a rainstorm can bring twice as much water as the
plant can handle.


“And when hydraulically you can only take about 200 million of it – where’s
the other 200 hundred million go?”


“Where does it go?”


“Uh, it’s by-passed. Limited treatment possibly and then it would be
by-passed to the Maumee River”


Toledo is not alone. More than seven hundred cities across the country have
combined sewer systems that often overflow, cities such as Milwaukee,
Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, and Cleveland. Every year billions of gallons of
raw sewage are dumped into the Lakes from cities with these old combined systems.


The sewage can cause problems for the environment, but the biggest concern
is that people might get sick. Some of the bugs found in sewage can cause
liver problems, heart disease, and can even cause death.


Dr. Joan Rose is a microbiologist with Michigan State University. She’s
been studying sewage in water for more than 20 years. She says sewage
contains viruses and other nasty microorganisms that can hang around in the
environment.


“Up here in the Great Lakes region with the cool temperatures we have –
these organisms can survive for months, and also these organisms
accumulate.”


Rose says what’s unique about the microorganisms in sewage is that it only
takes a few of them to cause diseases in humans, and once contracted they
can be contagious.


The Ohio EPA sued the city of Toledo. It wanted the city to clean up its
act. After a long battle, the city and the state reached a settlement, and
officials agreed to spend more than 450 million dollars to try to do
something about the problem.


(Sound of construction)


Back at the wastewater treatment plant we’re standing on the edge of a deep
pit. Down at the bottom sparks are flying as welders climb over towers of
green rebar. They’re building a new system that’s designed to treat water
quickly when there’s a heavy rainstorm. The water won’t be fully treated,
but the solids will be settled out and the water will be chlorinated before it’s
released into the river. It’s a compromise the city and the state EPA agreed
upon.


Steve Hallett says to fully treat every drop of water that comes to the
treatment plant in a big storm would require a project four times this size.


“You’d need massive amounts of storage to hold every drop here. You know, that’s
extremely costly and I think, uh, is deemed not feasible.”


Toledo’s project will mostly be paid for by a steady hike in water and sewer
rates over the next fifteen years. The increase was approved by voters
three years agom, and officials plan to go after federal grants and loans
to help defray the costs, but federal dollars are getting scarce. Big cuts
have been made to the federal low interest loan program many cities use to
finance these projects.


The demand for financing is likely to increase. The cost of upgrading the
nation’s combined sewer systems will cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
The question is, who will pay to stop one of the biggest sources of water
pollution left in the country?


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Spring Storms Trigger Sewage Dumping

  • An overflow point in a combined sewer line. The overflow is designed to relieve pressure on an overburdened sewer system. (Photo courtesy of the USEPA)

The wet weather of the last few weeks has caused some communities to dump sewage into the Great Lakes. That’s triggering health concerns for this summer. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

The wet weather of the last few weeks has caused some communities to
dump sewage into the Great Lakes. That’s triggering health concerns
for this summer. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach
reports:


Frequent heavy downpours have overwhelmed some lakeside sewer
systems. Some cities have dumped partly treated or untreated sewage
into the Great Lakes, instead of causing sewer backups in local basements.


Jeffery Foran is an aquatic toxicologist and president of the Midwest Center for
Environmental Science and Public Policy. He says the sewage contains pathogens –
bacteria and microorganisms – that can cause disease in humans. He’s worried about the
material spreading along the lakeshore.


“Probably accumulating at the beaches, in the sand, and in the cladophora, this algae that
washes up in the lake and rocks, and other structures that occur along the shoreline.”


The sewerage district in Foran’s home city of Milwaukee has already dumped about two
billion gallons of sewage into Lake Michigan this spring. He says the large volume of
water in the lake will dilute some of the sewage. But Foran is still expecting some beach
closings this summer.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Related Links

Airport Thaws De-Icing Problem

Each winter, airports around the country use more than 30 million
gallons of deicing fluid. The gooey substance prevents ice and snow from
building on a plane’s wings. However, the fluid can also seep into the
ground and pollute groundwater. It’s a costly problem for airports. But
now, one has found a unique solution. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:

Transcript

Each winter, airports around the country use more than 30 million gallons of deicing fluid. The

gooey substance prevents ice and snow from building up on a plane’s wings. However, the fluid can

also seep into the ground and pollute groundwater. It’s a costly problem for airports. But now, one

has found a unique solution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:


(sound of plane)


It’s a cold, overcast day in Albany, New York as a passenger plane lifts off the runway. It’s one

of the hundred or so planes that take off from here every day. At this time of year, they’ll all

have to be deiced. Steve Lachetta is the Albany airport’s planner and environmental manager.


“We’re in the Hudson River basin and our winter season extends for over 214 days, from early

October through late April or early May. Albany, being a typical small hub, uses 100 thousand

gallons of PG per year.”


PG is propylene glycol, the main ingredient in deicing fluid that makes it gooey. Any time the

temperature dips below 40 degrees, airports are required by the FCC to use PG. The problem is,

propylene glycol also seeps into the ground.


And in Albany’s case, it started showing up in the nearby Mohawk River – a local source for

drinking water. So, Albany became the first airport in the country to receive a state mandate to

clean up its deicing fluid.


“We were spending one million dollars to dispose of our winter storm water after collection. So we

tried every form of recycling the fluid, trucking it off airport. And we took a common sense

approach to cost control and became very interested in establishing biological treatment.”


In other words, Lachetta turned to microorganisms for help. He added bacteria to the dirty storm

water. And found they started digesting the propylene glycol. The bacteria broke it down into

acidic acid and then carbon dioxide and methane. The process gives the microorganisms fuel to grow.


“The manufacturers refer to propylene glycol as the filling of the Oreo cookie of the microbe world

and very readily digested so we did much experimentation and found total removal. Byproducts are 85

percent pure methane and 15 percent carbon dioxide.”


(sound inside treatment plant)


That pure methane is put to use here – providing heat for the airport’s storm water treatment

plant. It looks like something out of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The room is filled

with a jumble of brightly colored pipes. There’s deep purple, vibrant green and canary yellow. Each

one has a special purpose.


“The large blue pipes are cycling 22 gallons per minute through the large vessels outside standing

35 feet high, 14 feet wide, and the brown pipes are the dirty storm water directly off the aircraft

aprons and the light blue pipes are for the clean water.”


Those pipes run to and from a pair of giant mixing vats. They stir up a brew of dirty storm water,

microorganisms, and some extra nutrients. It’s all cooked at a temperature of 85 degrees. And the

result is clean water.


Shelly Zuskin-Barish is the project manager for the EPA’s Airport Deicing Operations Study. She

says Albany has the most stringent treatment program in the country.


“I was very impressed when reviewing their treatment system. We found they were getting very good

removal in terms of not only propylene glycol but also an additive called tolyltriazole.”


Zuskin-Barish says there’s growing concern about tolytriazole because of its impact on aquatic

life. This is the first system she’s seen that removes it. As for propylene glycol, most airports

use a combination of recycling it and trucking it off site. Albany’s system removes more of the

pollutants, and it’s cheaper. Zuskin-Barish says Albany is on the cutting edge because it had to

be.


Albany airport has a local limit through their own state of 1 part per million propylene glycol.

For the different airports we’ve seen, that’s a very tight limit and I think in large part, pushed

them to go to this technology, which is helping them achieve those levels on a daily basis.


But now, other states – and countries – are starting to crack down as well. And Albany’s Steve

Iachetta is getting lots of visitors.


“We’ve been visited by Tokyo International, some European airports, the Department of Defense, much

larger airports, Denver, Nashville, other hubs that have come to see our early pioneering efforts.

It’s great to be on the leading edge. It’s nice to know we can contribute to improving the

environment.”


Right now, airport pollution controls differ from state to state. But next winter, the EPA will

consider national regulations to govern the disposal of deicing fluid. That may bring even more

visitors to Albany – to find out how a small airport ended up with the country’s most innovative

system.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Albany, New York.