Mississippi researchers explore municipal wastewater, seafood waste

By Ryan C. Christiansen | August 08, 2008
Researchers at Mississippi State University are using a combination of bacteria, yeast and fungi to produce oil for biodiesel production from municipal wastewater and seafood industry waste.

Rafael Hernandez and Todd French, assistant professors and codirectors of the Renewable Fuels and Chemicals Laboratory at the university's Dave C. Swalm School of Chemical Engineering, are looking at ways to use microorganisms to convert sugars from waste into fats that can then be extracted as oil to be used in the production of biodiesel.

Municipal wastewater already includes microorganisms that can be fed sugars to produce oil. Microorganisms that are added to wastewater during the treatment process might also be used to produce oil. Hernandez said the overall goal is to convert municipal wastewater treatment plants into dual-purpose facilities that treat wastewater to meet U.S. EPA standards and produce a feedstock for biodiesel that meets ASTM standards. The glycerin that is produced during the process can be used by microorganisms to produce more oil, French added.

The university plans to implement a pilot-scale wastewater treatment and feedstock production facility within 18 months. Hernandez estimated that if the process could be perfected and implemented on a national scale, the United States might produce 5 billion to 7 billion gallons of oil annually.

A carbohydrate found in shrimp, crab and lobster shells might also be a source of oil for biodiesel production. Chitin, a derivative of glucose found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans, is a major portion of seafood processing industry waste. Hernandez and French are looking at ways to add value to the millions of tons of seafood waste that are produced each year in the Gulf states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Currently, seafood processors each spend an average of $145,000 annually to dispose of the waste.

According to French, the process used to make oil for biodiesel includes treating the seafood waste with acid and then adding the mixture to vats of microorganisms, which consume the chitin and then convert it into fat, from which oil can be extracted. The process has been tested using synthetic seafood ingredients and will soon be tested using real seafood waste provided by Gollott's Seafood in Biloxi, Miss.

The laboratory's research is funded by grants from the EPA and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.
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