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Living machine technology to clean biodiesel wash-water

The details on Loyola University's P3 Award-winning project
By Ron Kotrba | June 25, 2013

U.S. EPA announced last week that Loyola University was one of seven universities to win the coveted P3 Award (People, Prosperity and the Planet) for innovative solutions to some of today’s toughest public health and environmental challenges. Regarding Loyola’s P3 award, and the project behind it, all EPA (and most biofuel news aggregators) said was: “Loyola University of Chicago [won the P3 award] for developing a greener way, through a wetland and a distillation process, to treat and reuse byproducts of biodiesel.” When I read this, I, probably like most of you, hadn’t a clue as to what it actually meant. I reached out to Zach Waickman, the biodiesel lab manager at Loyola, who provided some clarity to the project behind the P3 Award. First, he sent me a link to a more detailed description on EPA’s website, after which he answered my specific questions.

The objective: The technical challenges of our proposal are to capture the variety of contaminants in biodiesel wash-water with environmentally benign (or beneficial) biological systems and to develop a cost-effective, scalable, and transferable wash-water treatment design for biodiesel producers. The research driving our design process is novel and will innovate renewable biodiesel production by 1) treating industrial waste with scientifically vetted living systems, 2) seamlessly integrating environmentally benign biological wastewater treatment into the industrial process of renewable biodiesel production, demonstrating an alternative paradigm of sustainable ecological industrial design, and 3) creating a suite of scientifically evaluated value-added coproducts with all post-production materials.

The approach: Loyola undergraduate and graduate students and faculty mentors will design, test, and implement an innovative, cost-effective sustainable system for treating contaminated wash-waters resulting from our student-led Biodiesel Program. This project is original in its approach to treating wastewater on-site with environmentally benign living technologies. It will be the first known attempt to use living machine technology to solve the biodiesel wastewater problem. Our technologies will be transferable and scalable. We will share our design freely and openly through an online manual. Our project will maximize educational benefits of the P3 award. We will educate Loyola students about sustainable water consumption and sustainable solutions, and educate hundreds to thousands of K-12 students through teacher training modules that focus on water quality and sustainable water treatment.

Expected results: The primary long-term results of our P3 project will be a) designing and building an environmentally and economically sustainable biological waste-water treatment system capable of cleaning, detoxifying, and recycling 100 percent of the waste-water produced in the LUC Biodiesel Lab and b) disseminating the design and complementary materials to other sustainable biodiesel producers throughout the U.S. and the world in order to prevent unnecessary environmental pollution and increase economic solvency. The success of our project will be measured against how well our goals and objectives have been achieved. The adaptive scientific process, through which we will develop and evaluate all phases of the design, will produce a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data and results.

After reading this, I had a better idea of what the project is about, and what Loyola aims to do. But I still had some questions. I asked Zach, “I envision sort of the process used at wastewater treatment facilities—big aerobic digesters. Is this accurate? Biodiesel wash water has a lot of impurities such as methanol, soaps and salts, metals, glycerin, how would living organisms treat these contaminants, and what does it convert it to? Will there be limits on contaminants this system can handle? In other words, must the wash-water be relatively clean? The term 'living machine technology' is intriguing, what does this mean exactly?”

Here are Zach’s answers to my questions:

“The concept of a living machine is right in line with anaerobic digestion, although that specific biological process is not currently incorporated in our plans. The concept we are exploring aims to reduce the energy and chemical inputs of a typical waste-stream treatment process, biodiesel wash-water for our purposes. Biodiesel wash-water does have diverse contaminants, but if we can isolate, separate, and utilize these contaminants, then we believe the system could provide a huge environmental gain while being financially cost neutral. Take the salts, for example; we are looking at various halophytes (salt-loving plants) that can sequester the salts from the water while tolerating other contaminants. This plant can then be dried, crushed, and used as an organic ice melter on our sidewalks and roadways. Free fatty acids and/or glycerides we are able to release from the water through natural pH adjustment (moss, carbon dioxide emissions, coffee grounds, fungi) can be used to grow fly larvae that is a desirable organic feed for chickens (we have them too at our organic farm).

“There are a lot of possibilities and the endless combinations of treatments and tolerances doesn't make it an easy experiment, but the upside adds to a growing body literature working to mimic natural processes in order to clean and treat waste (industrial, residential) while producing beneficial products. With processes like these in place we can encourage the growth of a new industry that is financially incentivized to clean up the environment.

“You also hit on one of the largest issues I see with living systems: adaptability. Because it is so balanced, the incoming waste (biodiesel wash-water) has to be fairly consistent. It does not have to be 'clean' but the system will have little ability to adjust to new variables or new levels of contaminants that may arise from feedstock change, process issues, emulsions, etc. This is why living machines struggle to treat residential wastewater because flow rates, composition and contaminants from industrial waste streams alter the scenario too quickly. Mechanical treatments can adjust and be ramped up quickly, but biological treatments struggle to do the same.”

The project is called From Pollution to Possibility: A Sustainable And Interdisciplinary Solution to Biodiesel Production Wastewater.

Good luck Zach, and the entire Loyola Biodiesel Program, we’ll be following your progress.