MSU receives EPA funding for biodiesel research

By Bryan Sims | June 17, 2008
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Web exclusive posted June 24, 2008 at 3:23 p.m. CST

Region 4 of the U.S. EPA has awarded $200,000 to Mississippi State University for research to transform wastewater treatment plant sludge into biodiesel. Presented by EPA Regional Administrator Jimmy Palmer, the funds from the grant are intended to build upon the research that MSU is conducting in the field of renewable and sustainable fuels for the future.

"The research and development of sustainable energy technologies can translate into both economic and environmental success," said Palmer, who is also the former head of the MSU Department of Environmental Quality and an MSU alumnus. With the EPA, he oversees the agency's programs in Region 4, which consists of Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. "EPA is committed to promoting the development of clean, sustainable and affordable energy sources," he said.

The research team, led by Rafael Hernandez and Todd French, intends to increase the amount of oil that could be generated from wastewater treatment facilities by identifying microorganisms that can extract lipids-the fatty substances found in sludge-and use the fats found in the sludge as a viable feedstock for producing high-quality biodiesel.

To accomplish this, Hernandez and French said they will approach the project in two ways: First, they will attempt to identify microorganisms that are already in wastewater and engorge them with complex sugars so they become fatter and robust, which will render an improved throughput of biodiesel. The second option will be to identify all the microorganisms and inject into the wastewater sludge some types of microorganisms, such as Oleatinous, which can accumulate more than 20 percent of their body weight in fat. This would also make the microorganisms more robust with more fat content.

Hernandez and French discovered the value of the microorganisms in wastewater treatment facility sludge during their research as part of a grant awarded to their department from the U.S. DOE in July 2007. They discovered that wastewater is treated by microorganisms and that a fraction of these microorganisms are wasted every day. These wasted microorganisms accumulate in the sludge at a wastewater treatment facility, according to Hernandez. "What we want to do now is to increase the amount of oil that these microorganisms can produce," said Hernandez, an MSU assistant chemical engineer and coleader on the project. "We want to basically take a wastewater treatment facility and, in addition to treating water to EPA standards, also produce an oil that can be converted into biodiesel. So, we are adding one more goal to a wastewater treatment facility and transforming the wastewater treatment facility into a center of oil production in addition to water treatment."

However, attempting to implement such a process into an existing wastewater treatment facility would translate into modifications to wastewater treatment operations, which present challenges, Hernandez said. "Some of the changes that we're proposing to the wastewater treatment facility are going to be very hard to implement if we don't have data demonstrating that we're still compliant with EPA standards for water quality," he said. He also noted that the research team will be mindful of the ASTM quality standards put on biodiesel. "We need to continue doing research and demonstrating that we can meet those standards, accumulate more oil, extract that oil and produce quality biodiesel," he said.

French added that not only can the addition of different types of microorganisms augment the fat content of the existing microorganisms found in wastewater treatment sludge, but glycerin can act as a catalyst for propagating oil, as well. "One of the other [advantages] is that these microorganisms can actually eat that glycerin and turn that back into more oil," said French, who is an MSU assistant microbiologist and coleader with Hernandez on the project.

The research team will also evaluate life cycle energy costs to determine the process' net energy and environmental effectiveness. During the research, the generated oil wouldn't compete with sources of oil that are food-related.

French and Hernandez have yet to fully assess economic and logistic elements of the project in order to determine whether to colocate an oil-processing facility adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant, or an oil-processing plant within a feasible distance from a wastewater treatment plant. Either way, both researchers have these crucial factors in mind for further analysis. "Depending on the city, the size of the wastewater treatment facility and the wastewater treatment facilities around the area, all these sludges could be transported to a central location to be extracted and produce biodiesel there," Hernandez said.

Currently, the grant is funding bench-scale research, which is anticipated to transition into a pilot-scale facility within 18 months to further demonstrate the feasibility of the process. If the researchers demonstrate that the technology works, it could be applied at a national level. According to Hernandez, the national wastewater treatment facility infrastructure could produce between 5 billion to 7 billion gallons of oil that could potentially be used for biodiesel production. This would be a significant boon for current biodiesel producers who are paying a hefty price for feedstocks such as soy oil, for which have soared to unprecedented highs within the past year. "Right now, we're continuing to demonstrate using the EPA funds and the DOE funds so that we can accumulate more oil using wastewater and integrating lignocellulosic sugars into the system," he said. "This would help the biodiesel industry significantly because there is a tight supply of vegetable oils right now for biodiesel production."

The research is being conducted as part of EPA Office of Research and Development's Regionally Applied Research Effort. In addition to the development of a new feedstock for biodiesel production, the research aims to reduce the volume of sludge that has to be disposed of, which would reduce the amount of pollution from runoff.

French said the project will likely hold proprietary rights to the researchers' novel process, or they may file for a patent once the technology is proven on a commercial scale. "We haven't decided yet," he said. "[The project] shows promise, and we're pretty excited."
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