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Poly-electrolyte layers determine the efficiency of desalination membranes

Increasing water scarcity and pollution with micropollutants are responsible for the increasing cost of drinking water. Desalination of sea water and better wastewater treatment are necessary to counter this trend. Membranes can desalinate and remove most wastewater pollution. However, a lot of energy is required. Therefore, modern membranes must be more efficient in order to achieve satisfactory results.

Nano-filtration membranes consisting of poly-electrolytic layers are a promising approach to treat water more efficiently. Accordingly, the composition of poly-electrolytic layers has stirred up much interest in the production of nano-filtration membranes. Such membranes are manufactured layer by layer, which enables a good tuning of membrane properties for different purposes.

Commercially available nano-filtration membranes are usually a trade-off between high water permeability and good salt retention (desalination). This trade-off impacts either the quality or the volume of the cleaned water. Nano-filtration membranes that are produced in layer by layer can have a positive impact on this trade-off balance due to the formation of nano scaled layers. It is important to know which component plays a crucial role in the layer forming process.

A research group of the Technical University Eindhoven in the Netherlands had therefore undertaken the task of examining these layer components more closely. They specifically investigated the poly-electrolyte concentration. It is known that a higher poly-electrolyte concentration produces thicker layers. However, their impact on the membrane performance has so far been unknown. They now published their work, in which the researchers used two well-known strong poly-electrolytes: PDADMAC and PSS (polydiallyldimethylammonium chloride and poly(sodium-4-styrene sulfonate)). The membrane output was examined with regard to water permeability, the molecular weight cutoff and salt retention.

In the first double layer, the membranes made with a 50 mM saline solution showed a lower water permeability and molecular weight cutoff, as well as better salt retention (magnesium sulfate) due to the higher poly-electrolyt concentration. After a certain number of double layers, the molecular weight cutoff and the salt retention efficiency for all poly-electrolyte concentration leveled off. The higher the poly-electrolyte concentration, the sooner the plateau value was reached.

The membranes prepared with a 1 M salt concentration had a lower or comparable salt retention efficiency with one exception. The scientists concluded that the poly-electrolyte concentration significantly changed the membrane properties. A plateau was reached with seven or more double layers. The thicker layers showed a lower water permeability than those that were coated with poly-electrolyte solutions using a 50 mM salt concentration. Due to the reduced swelling of these membranes, they all had better salt retention efficiency, with the exception of magnesium chloride.

The results showed that increasing the poly-electrolyte concentration also increased the amount of poly-electrolyte adsorption. Due to a higher coating thickness, this led to lower permeability with pure water. However, this did not lead to a lower molecular weight cutoff or salt retention. The additional poly-electrolyte adsorption resulted in fewer links between the individual layers. The higher diffusivity of PDADMAC compared to PSS resulted in highly positively charged membranes, which in turn led to a better salt retention of magnesium and sodium chloride.

Overall, increased poly-electrolyte concentration and the salt concentration influenced the membrane charge exclusion significantly due to a higher charged surface, which led to better salt retention. However, the membrane size exclusion has not changed, which led to the same plateau values. The study presented here will allow chemists to produce better tuned desalination membranes, which will reduce the energy requirement and raw material requirements during production.

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Alternating catholyte flow improves microbial electrosynthesis start-up

Microbial electrolysis is a technology that uses living microorganisms as electro-catalysts in electrolysis cells. The technology can be used for wastewater treatment. Earlier, we proposed that microbial electrolysis be used to decentralize wastewater treatment and biogas production. Since this is a process that converts CO2 into organic compounds using electricity it can also be used for CO2 valorization. Besides methane, such electrolysis cells produce compounds such as acetic acid (vinegar), caproic acid, and others. It is then called microbial electrosynthesis.

However, the main problem with microbial electrolysis and electrosynthesis is the long start-up time. The start-up time is the time required for the microorganisms to form a biofilm on the electrode surface and to start producing the desired products. It can range from several weeks to several months, depending on the operating conditions and the type of microorganisms. This long start-up time limits the feasibility and the scalability of microbial electrosynthesis, as well as its economic and environmental benefits.

Now, scientists of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands presented new research, which aimed to reduce the start-up time of microbial electrosynthesis. By using a novel technique that involves alternating the direction of the catholyte flow through a three-dimensional electrode they were able to reduce the startup time to only ten days. They hypothesized that this technique enhances mass transfer and biofilm formation, and thus accelerates the CO2 reduction and the product formation. This was a start-up time reduction of 50%, compared to a conventional flow-through electrode.

 

The alternating electrolyte flow also reduced the power consumption to 136 kWh per kg of hydrogen. After 60 days, the local hydrogen concentration at the cathode was at a maximum of 600 μM, which indicates a better mass transport and thus a more active biofilm. The researchers speculated that the alternating catholyte flow improved mass transport, because the hydrogen could be better distributed over the cathode layers. In addition, the researchers think that alternating the flow refreshed potential “dead zones” in the cathode chamber.

The pH in the catholyte was 5.8–6.8 and in optimal range for electrosynthetic microorganisms. Production of short and medium chain fatty acids was linked to the presence of microorganisms identified as Peptococcaceae and Clostridium sensu stricto 12 species. Hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis was also observed and was linked to Methanobrevibacter. The latter is a typical constituent of microbial electrolysis cells that use higher intermediate hydrogen concentrations for electrosynthesis at the cathode.

However, there are limitations of the technique, such as the energy efficiency, the product selectivity, and the scalability of microbial electrosynthesis. Such limitations are typical for bench top experiments. We are therefore looking forward to see an industrial application of this new method.

 

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Trace metals accelerate hydrogen evolution reaction of biocathodes in microbial electrolysis cells

It has been known that microbial biofilms on biocathodes improve the productions rates of hydrogen evolution reaction (HER). This is the process of producing hydrogen gas from water using electricity. The hydrogen evolution was even accelerated when the biofilm colonizing a biocathode was killed. Different types of bacteria, such as exoelectrogenic (Geobacter sulfurreducens), non-exoelectrogenic (Escherichia coli), and a hydrogenotrophic methanogen (Methanosarcina barkeri) accomplished the feat but Geobacter was the fastest. Even cell debris and metalloproteins catalyzed HER. Therefore, living cells are not required for enhanced HER, and biocathodes could be a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative to precious metal catalysts. While the authors back then speculated on the role of metalloproteins, a new publication in Electrochimica Acta by researchers of Wageningen University shows that indeed trace metals in the growth medium are responsible for the observed rate acceleration.

The authors used a mixture of metal compounds present in the microbial medium such as cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel and zinc salts as well as the metal chelating agent ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) as the catalyst for the HER under microbial compatible conditions (near-neutral pH, mesophilic temperature, aquous electrolyte).

They performed a series of experiments to investigate the effect of different parameters on the catalytic activity and stability of the trace metal mix medium. These parameters included the concentration of the metal compounds, the presence or absence of EDTA, the type of electrode material, and the type of electrolyte. Various techniques to measure the cathodic current, the hydrogen production rate, the overpotential, and the exchange current density of the HER were used.

The results show that the trace metal mix medium increased the cathodic current and the electron recovery into hydrogen significantly, and that copper and molybdenum were the most active compounds in the mix. This is surprising because the previous publication found mostly cobalt and iron compounds on the surface of the biocathodes. Both of which are good hydrogen catalysts as well, whereas molybdenum sulfide for example, did not increase production rates in methanogenic microbial electrolysis cells. HER is the rate determining reaction in methanogenic electrolysis cells because it is the intermediate:

4 H2 + CO2 → CH4 + 2 H2O

The results also showed that removing EDTA from the mix improved the catalyst performance further, as EDTA acted as a complexing (chelating) agent that reduced the availability of metal ions for HER. The results also showed that carbon-based electrodes were more suitable than metal-based electrodes for HER, possibly because they have a higher surface area. This is an interesting result because it was previously thought that the mechanism behind the better performance of carbon electrodes was the microbial preference to adhere to carbon than to metal surfaces. The results also showed that using microbial growth medium as the electrolyte did not affect the catalyst performance significantly, as compared to using phosphate buffer solution.

The authors concluded that their method was a simple, cheap, and environmentally friendly way to prepare effective catalysts for HER using trace metals from microbial growth media. They suggested that these catalysts could be integrated in biological systems for in situ hydrogen production in bio-electrochemical and fermentation processes. Indeed, it is inevitable not to use trace metals in microbial electrolysis cells as they are essential to sustain growth.

Both articles demonstrate that trace metals can play an important role in the HER, and that they can be derived from biological sources. However, they also have some limitations and challenges, such as the stability, selectivity, and scalability of the catalysts. Therefore, further research is needed to optimize the performance and applicability of trace metal-based catalysts for HER.

(Image: US National Science Foundation)

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Bio-electric systems help PFAS removal

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been manufactured for various applications for many decades. These include medical applications, such as implants and catheters, or consumer products for firefighting, plastics, cookware, and cosmetics. Likewise, PFAS are required in countless industrial applications, such as in the automotive industry, the chemical industry and the energy sector, including hydrogen electrolysis and fuel cells (e.g. Nafion™). They help apparatuses to function properly, reduce wear and the risk of accidents. The widespread use of PFAS has led to traces of these substances entering the environment worldwide. Typical sites with higher environmental PFAS concentrations include airports, chemical plants, fire brigades, military facilities etc.

The long-term health effects of these substances are currently a matter of controversy, particularly with regard to their chemical stability (a desired property).

In addition to completely avoiding their entry into the environment, PFAS can also be eliminated from it. For example, activated charcoal is often used to adsorb PFAs onto it. However, this method is not efficient in soils. Ideally, the activated carbon itself would have to be further processed in order to reuse PFAS. This process is very energy intensive.

As for many treatment processes, microbes can be used also for PFAS. Such biological methods are called bioremediation. However, the carbon-fluorine (C-F) bonds in PFAS are among the strongest covalent bonds in organic chemistry. In addition, there are very few naturally occurring C-F bonds in nature. They only occur in small concentrations. A prominent example is fluoroacetic acid, a highly toxic compound produced by the South African poisonous gifblaar. Few microorganisms with the ability to break the C-F bond have been identified. Thus, bioremediation of PFAS is possible but a slow process.

As already described in our previous articles, bio-electrical systems can accelerate microbial conversion processes. With bio-electrical systems it is possible to offer microbes a greater electrochemical potential gradient. Since this leads to larger energy gain in microbial metabolism, such metabolic rates can be accelerated. This process is successfully employed to clean industrial waste water.

In bio-electrical systems, microorganisms along with contaminants are placed in an electrochemical apparatus. The electrodes of such a system serve as electron donors or acceptors. The biodegradation is can be measured via the electric current.

Indeed, bio-electric systems have been used to degrade fluorinated alkanes. For example, the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone was successfully eliminated using such an apparatus. As proposed for bio-electrical liquid fuel, designer microbiomes could also be studied for PFAS. Other drug residues, such as Prozac™, should also be examined to ensure absence from the environment.

At Frontis Energy we are looking forward to new developments for PFAS removal in bio-electrical systems.

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Decentralized waste energy systems produce biogas where it is needed

Among others, the current European energy crisis was caused by a surge in demand after the pandemic, the embargo on Russia, the reluctance of investors to finance fossil energy projects and the throttling of production by the OPEC countries. In this complex situation, European countries are forced to develop alternatives and renewable energy sources. At the same time, however, natural gas is difficult to replace in many industries. One exception is the food and beverage industry, which sits enormous untapped resources of biogas in their wastewater.

Wastewater is a resource of which 380 billion m³ are produced worldwide. It contains valuable nutrients and energy. Global production is projected to increase by 51% by 2050. Wastewater treatment consumes about 3-4% of the energy generated globally. The full reeovery of the energy that is contained in this wastewater would completely offset the energy consumption of its treatment and in many cases even produce a surplus. In addition, the entire global water treatment is estimated to account for up to 5% of man-made CO2 production. Unfortunately, many businesses and municipalities do not invest in complex and expensive wastewater treatment technologies and continue to waste this valuable resource. The European Biogas Association estimates that by 2050, a maximum of 65% of gas requirements (~167 billion m³) could be covered by biogas.

Europe is the largest cheese maker in the world. More than 9 million tons of cheese are produced annually. With every ton of cheese, 9 m³ of cheese whey remain. Despite its high nutritional value, whey is often treated like wastewater for various reasons. Yet, the very high organic load in the whey makes it difficult to treat. Wasted whey can also be used for biogas production. In addition to whey, regular wastewater is also produced by cheese makers. For example, a medium-sized cheese factory pays 1.5 million euros a year for its waste water. Reducing these costs by producing biogas would turn dairy industry wastewater into a valuable resource.

This situation is similar in many other food and beverage sectors such as breweries, distilleries, winemakers, bakeries etc. All of these sectors have high energy requirements. Renewable electrical energy cannot meet this need. The market for wastewater treatment in Europe and the US is around 12 billion euros.

Traditional wastewater treatment is a cascaded process including aeration and anaerobic sludge digestion followed by incineration. These methods often consume more than 70% of the energy in a wastewater treatment plant. If contaminants such as high-energy total organic carbon or ammonia were converted into biogas before the process, at least 80% of the energy needed for wastewater treatment could be saved. It is absurd that this energy is removed from the wastewater using even more energy.

An ever-increasing number of sewage treatment plants already recover the resources contained in their wastewater, apart from the water itself. The oldest recivered products are biogas and fertilizers made from sewage sludge. Due to its heavy metal content such as copper and mercury, sewage sludge is no longer used as fertilizer but incinerated.

Biogas is particularly popular in Europe as the produced volumes and prices are high enough to compete with natural gas. Biogas is also a green alternative to natural gas as no additional CO2 is emitted. (Hence, it is often called Renewable Natural Gas in North America.) A disadvantage of classic biogas is the CO2 and sulfide content. Another disadvantage is that anaerobic digestion is the terminal treatment step, wasting valuable wastewater resources in the preceding treatment. Finally, the size and complexity of current digestion requires significant commitment from users when it comes to capital expenditures. Most food manufacturers prefer to focus on making food rather than cleaning their wastewater.

Novel high-performance biogas reactors solve these problems through miniaturization. A 20-fold size reduction is achieved compared to conventional systems. The new technology used was developed in Japan in the early 1990s and is called microbial electrolysis. The electrolysis of wastewater is catalyzed by electroactive microorganisms on the anode (the positive electrode). The reaction products are CO2 (from organic matter) and nitrogen gas (N2 from ammonia).

Principle of a microbial electrolysis reactor. On the left anode, the organic material is oxidized to CO2. The free electrons are absorbed by the anode and transported to the cathode. Hydrogen gas (H2) is released there. CO2 and hydrogen form methane, the final microbial reaction product.

At the same time, hydrogen gas (H2) is generated at the cathode (the negative electrode). This hydrogen reacts with CO2 to form methane. The final methanation step completes the biocatalytic treatment of the wastewater. Gas grid injection is one possible use. But for cheese makers, the gas would be used on site to generate electricity and/or heat.

The reaction is accelerated using an applied voltage and is based on the laws of thermodynamics. As a result, the reactor volume can be reduced. The size reduction has several advantages. First, it makes biogas accessible in markets where it was previously not possible due to the high investment costs. Second, it enables higher throughput at a lower cost. Smaller units are mobile and can be shared, moved or rented. After all, food manufacturers want to do what they do best, which is to make food.

 

Image: Pixabay

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Nanostructured membranes improve the gas separation of carbon dioxide

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, various technologies are in development requiring the separation of mixed gases, such as  CO2 and methane or CO2 and nitrogen gas (CO2/CH4 and CO2/N2). Compared to other separation technologies, polymer membranes are  good candidates for industrial use. This is due to their low operating costs, high energy efficiency and simple scalability.

The gas permeability and selectivity, as well as the cost of these polymer membranes are the crucial criteria for their industrial use. These criteria are influenced by molecular order processes during polymerization at nano- and micrometer levels. However, the processes regulating the molecular order of most common membranes do not occur on these levels. Hence, there is little control over them during manufacturing. Not much is known about materials with self organizing properties and their influence on molecular order and gas separation.

Chemists at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands examined the effects of the layer distance within the membrane and its halogenation on the gastrunge and published their results in the MDPI Membranes journal. They focused on the separation of helium, CO2 and nitrogen. The researchers used liquid crystal membranes for their investigation. Liquid crystal molecules can align in various nanostructures. These structures vary depending on the manufacturing process and can therefore be controlled. As a result, liquid crystal membranes are ideal in order to investigate the influence of nanostructures on gas separation.

A frequently used manufacturing method is to commence the self organization of the reactive liquid crystal molecules in a cell with spacers. This helps to better control the membrane thickness and alignment and ultimately control the molecular orientation. The final network of the liquid crystal molecules and their fixation in nanostructures is required to achieve mechanical strength. For example, high ordered crystal membranes (i.e. not liquid crystals) have a lower gas permeability. Nonetheless, they also are characterized by a higher selectivity for helium and CO2 compared to nitrogen.

A lamellar morphology and the flow direction of the gas also have a great influence on selectivity and permeability of the membrane. It is also known that halogen atoms such as chlorine or fluorine improve CO2 permeability and selectivity by affecting both gas solubility and diffusion.

In the presented experiments, all liquid crystal membranes with similar chemical compositions, but different halogenated alkyl chains, were aligned. The CO2 sorption and the entire gas permeation were better if their layers were further apart. The gas solubility itself had no impact. This was confirmed by the increased gas diffusion coefficients, which were also determined in the experiments.

Bulky halogens had only limited influence on gas permeability and selectivity. The CO2 permeability of all halogenated liquid crystal membranes increased due to a slightly higher CO2 solubility and diffusion coefficients, which led to improved selectivity for CO2. The layer distance in particular was a crucial factor that directly influenced the diffusion coefficient. The researchers recommended that future investigations should focus on improving separation performance, for example by reducing the membrane thickness.

At Frontis Energy, we are looking forward to a good commercial product that can separate CO2 from gas mixtures, such as biogas, effectively and cheap.

Photo: Pixabay / SD-Pictures

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Novel membranes from plant waste filter heavy metals from water

Unfortunately, water pollution is still an issue in many places. Heavy metals are a group of water pollutants that can accumulate in the human body and causing cancer and other diseases. Existing technologies for heavy metal removal, however, are very energy intensive.

Scientists from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) have created a new membrane out of byproducts from the vegetable oil industry. The membrane removes heavy metals from contaminated water. The team discovered that proteins, which originated from peanut or sunflower oil production bind heavy metal ions very effectively. In their tests, they showed that this adsorption process can purify contaminated water so much that it fulfills drinking water quality standards.

The researchers see their membranes as an inexpensive, simple, sustainable and scalable solution for heavy metal removal from water. Their results were published in the Chemical Engineering Journal.

The new protein based membranes were generated by an environmentally friendly process and needed little energy for their use. This makes them a promising water purification solution for industrialized nations as well as less developed countries.

The production of commercial vegetable oils generates protein rich waste products. These remnants remain from the raw plant after the oil extraction. For their membranes, the research team used sunflower and peanut oils. After the proteins had been extracted, they were transformed into nano-amyloid fibrils. These are rope-like structures built from tightly intertwined proteins. The protein fibrils strongly attract heavy metals and act like a molecular sieve. In the published experiments, the membranes removed up to 99.89 percent of heavy metals.

Among the three metals tested, lead and platinum were filtered most effectively, followed by chrome. Since platinum is often used as a catalyst in fuel cells or electrolyzers, the new membrane would be an elegant and cheap method to recover this metal.

The researchers combined the extracted amyloid fibrils with activated carbon. Due to the high surface volume ratio of the amyloid fibrils, they are particularly suitable for adsorption large amounts of heavy metals. The filter can be used for all types of heavy metals. In addition, organic pollutants such as perfluoralkyl and polyfluoralkyl compounds are filtered as well. These chemicals are used for a variety of consumer and industrial products, as well as in nafion membranes of fuel cells.

The concentration of heavy metals in contaminated water determines how much volume the membrane can filter. A hybrid membrane made of sunflower amyloids requires only 16 kg of protein to filter a swimming pool contaminated with 400 parts lead per billion. One kilogram of sunflower extract yields about 160 g of protein. The protein-rich sunflower and peanut oils are inexpensive raw materials. Since this is the first time that amyloid fibrils were obtained from sunflower and peanut proteins, the process must still be scaled and industrialized.

However, due to its simplicity and minimal use of chemical reagents, the process seems easy to scale. This makes it possible to recycle the waste product for further applications and to fully exploit such industrial food waste. The filtered metals can also be extracted and further recycled. After filtration, the membrane with the captured metals can simply be burned and leaving behind only the metals.

While toxic metals such as lead or mercury need safe disposal, other metals such as platinum can be re-used in the production of electronics and other high value devices, such as fuel cells. The recovery of the precious platinum, which costs 30,000 euros per kg, only requires 32 kg of protein, while the recovery of gold, which corresponds to almost 55,000 euros per kg, only requires 16 kg of protein. In view of the costs of less than 1 euro per kg of protein, the advantages are enormous.

The co-author of the article, Raffaele Mezzenga, had already discovered in 2016 that whey proteins from cow milk had similar properties. Back then, the researchers noticed that proteins from plant oil seeds could also have similar properties.

Another great advantage is that, unlike other methods such as reverse osmosis, this filtration does not require electricity. Gravity is completely sufficient for the entire filtration process. The method is also suitable for water purification in poorly developed areas.

Photo: Pixabay

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Lead removal from water using shock electrodialysis

Lead was widely used in water pipes during the industrial revolution that triggered urbanization and exponential growth of the population in metropolitan centers. The reason for its popularity was the plasticity of the material used in service lines near the end user. The negative health effects have been known since the 1920s, but infrastructure modernization in industrialized countries remains an enormous economic challenge. Lead service lines therefore continue to circulate water in our supply systems. The city of Flint in the northwest of Detroit, for example, received much press attention due to its long struggle with lead poisoning (e.g. Flint Water Crisis). Dissolved lead is highly toxic in a very small concentration and accumulates in body tissues.

The biggest challenge when removing lead from the water cycle is that it is usually dissolved in very low concentrations. Other compounds “mask” the dissolved lead, which makes its removal difficult. Sodium, for instance, is concentrated ten thousand times higher than lead. While nowadays lead can be removed from water by reverse osmosis or distillation, these processes are not selective and thus ineffective. They consume a lot of energy, which in turn is an environmental issue in itself. High energy consumption makes water treatment also very expensive. At the same time, other minerals dissolved ion water are beneficial and therefore desired ingredients that should not be removed.

MIT engineers have developed a much more energy-efficient method to selectively remove lead from water and published their results in the journal ACS EST Water. The new system can remove lead from water in private households or industrial plants and hence from the water cycle. Through its efficiency, it is economically attractive and offers its users the clear advantage of not being poisoned.

The method is the most recent of a number of development steps. The researchers started with desalination systems and later developed it into radioactive decontamination method. With lead the engineers have found an attractive market. It is the first system that is also suitable for private households. The new approach uses a process that was named shock electrodialysis by the MIT engineers. It is essentially very similar to electrodialysis as we know it, as charged ions migrate into an electric field through the electrolyte. As a result, ions are enriched on one side while being depleted on the other.

The difference of the new method is that the electric field moves as a sort of shock wave through the electrolyte and drags dissolved ions along. The shock wave traverses from one side to the other is the voltage increases. The process leads to a lead reduction of 95%. Today, similar methods are also used to clean up aquifers or soil contaminated by solvents. In principle, the shock wave makes the process much cheaper than existing processes because the electrical energy is targeted to remove specifically lead while leaving other minerals in the water. Hence, a lot less energy is consumed.

As usual for bench top prototypes, shock electrodialysis is still too ineffective to be economically viable. Its up-scaling will take time. But the strong interest of potential users will certainly accelerate its industrialization. For a household whose water supply is contaminated by lead, the system could be placed in the basement and slowly clean the water carried by the supply pipes because high rates occur only during peak hours. For this purpose, a water reservoir is necessary, keeping a stock of purified water. This can be a fast and cheap solution for communities such as Flint.

The process could also be adapted for some industrial purposes. The mining and oil industries produce much heavily contaminated wastewater. One imagine to reclaim dissolved metals and sell them to the market. This would create economic an incentives for wastewater treatment. However, a direct comparison with currently existing methods is difficult because the longevity of the developed system is yet to be demonstrated.

At Frontis Energy we are thrilled by the idea of ​​creating economic incentives to help implementing environmentally friendly processes and are already looking forward to a commercial product.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Pilot-scale microbial fuel cells produce electricity from wastewater

In wastewater treatment, aeration is an energy-intensive but necessary process to remove contaminants. Pumps blow air into the wastewater to supply the microbes in the treatment tank with oxygen. In return, these bacteria oxidize organic substances to CO2 and hence remove them from the wastewater. This process is the industrial standard and has proven itself for over a century. If the researchers at Washington State University and the University of Idaho have their way, that is changing now.

In their project, the researchers used a unique microbial fuel cell system they developed to replace aeration. Their novel wastewater treatment system cleans wastewater with the help of microorganisms that produce electricity. These microbes are called electrophiles.

The work should one day lead to less dependence on the energy-intensive treatment processes. Most of the energy in such processes is consumed in the activated sludge and its disposal. The energy consumption in water treatment produces around 4-5% of anthropogenic CO2 worldwide. to put that in perspective, according to the Air Transport Action Group in Geneva, international air transport produced 2.1% CO2 in 2019. The researchers published their work in the journal Bioelectrochemistry. In addition to cutting green house gas emissions, lowering the energy consumption of wastewater treatment would save billions in annual operation and maintenance costs.

Microbial fuel cells allow microbes to convert chemical energy into electricity, much like in a battery. In wastewater treatment, a microbial fuel cell can replace aeration while capturing electrons from wastewater organics. These electrons themselves are in turn a waste product of the microbial metabolism. All living organisms strive to discharge their excess electrons. This process is known as respiration or fermentation. The electricity generated the microbes can be used for useful applications in the wastewater treatment plant itself. The technology kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the treatment of the wastewater saves energy. On the other hand, it also generates electricity.

Up until now, microbial fuel cells have been used experimentally in wastewater treatment systems under ideal conditions, but under real and changing conditions they often fail. Microbial fuel cells lack regulation that controls the potential of anodes and cathodes and thus the cell potential. This can easily lead lead to a system failure. The entire cell must then be replaced.

To tackle this problem, the researchers added an additional reference electrode to the system that enables them to control their fuel cell. The system becomes more flexible. It can either work as a microbial fuel cell on its own and consume no energy, or it can be converted so that less energy is used for aeration while it purifies the wastewater more intensively. Frontis Energy uses a similar control system for its electrolysis reactors.

The system was operated for one year without major issues in the laboratory as well as a pilot in a wastewater treatment plant in Idaho. It removed contaminants at rates comparable to those in a classic aeration tanks. In addition, the microbial fuel cell could possibly be used completely independent of grid power. The researchers hope that one day it could be used in small wastewater treatment plants, such as cleaning livestock farms or in remote areas.

Despite the progress, there are still challenges to be overcome. They are complex systems that are difficult to build. At Frontis Energy we specialize in such systems and can help with piloting and commercialization.

(Photo: Wikipedia / National University of Singapore)

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Biochar from waste removes pharmaceuticals from wastewater

Biochar is a coal-like substance that is mainly made from agricultural waste products. It can remove contaminants such as pharmaceuticals from treated wastewater. This is the result of research carried out by scientists of the Pennsylvania State University and the Arid Lands Agricultural Research Center in Arizona. The biochar was made from two agricultural residues common in the US: cotton and guayule.

To test the ability of biochar to adsorb pharmaceuticals from treated wastewater, the scientists compared three common compounds. During adsorption, a material like a pharmaceutical adheres to the surface of solid biochar particles. In the case of absorption, in turn, one material is taken up into another, such as in a sponge.

The shrub guayule grows in the dry southwestern US and its waste was used for the biochar tested. Among bonatics, it is also called Parthenium argentatum. The shrub is cultivated as a source of rubber and latex. The plant is chopped to the ground and its branches crushed to extract the latex. The dry, mushy, fibrous residue that remains after the stalks are chopped up to extract the latex is called bagasse.

The results are important as they demonstrate the potential of biochar made from abundant agricultural waste. If it wasn’t re-used, this waste would have to be disposed at a cost. The production of biochar is an inexpensive additional processing step to reduce contamination in treated wastewater used for irrigation.

At the same time, most wastewater treatment plants are currently not equipped to remove emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals. If these toxic compounds were removed by biochar, the wastewater could be reprocessed in irrigation systems. This re-use is crucial in regions where water scarcity is a constraint for agricultural production.

The pharmaceutical compounds used in the study were: sulfapyridine, an antibacterial drug commonly used in veterinary medicine; docusate, a widely used laxative and stool softener, and erythromycin, an antibiotic used to treat infections and acne.

The results, published in the journal Biochar, suggest that biochar can effectively adsorb agricultural waste. The biochar obtained from cotton processing waste was a lot more efficient. It adsorbed 98% of the docusate, 74% of the erythromycin and 70% of the sulfapyridine from aqueous solutions. In comparison, the biochar obtained from guayule residues bagasse adsorbed 50% of the docusate, 50% of the erythromycin and only 5% of the sulfapyridine.

Research found that a temperature rise from about 340°C to about 700°C in the oxygen-free pyrolysis process used to convert agricultural waste materials to biochar resulted in a improved capacity for adsorption.

To date, there have been no studies on the use of guayule bagasse to make biochar and remove contaminants, nor are there any for cotton processing waste. Some research has been carried out into the possible removal of other contaminants. However, this is the first study to use cotton gin waste specifically to remove pharmaceuticals from water.

The research is more than theoretical. At Frontis Energy we hope that the technology will soon be available on industrial scale. With cotton gin waste being widespread even in the poorest regions, we believe this source of biochar holds great promise for decontaminating water. The next step would be to develop a mixture of biochar material to adsorb a wider variety of contaminants from water.

(Photo: Wikipedia)