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Brewing a Better Battery: Researchers Pulling Power from Brewery Wastewater

After cultivating their fungus from wastewater, the researchers bake it to a char; charred fungus is higher in carbon, which provides the raw material for batteries. | Images credit: University of Colorado Boulder

Engineers from the University of Colorado Boulder (CUB) have developed a bio-manufacturing process that uses a biological organism cultivated in brewery wastewater to create the carbon-based materials needed to make energy storage cells.

The process could represent a win-win by reducing expensive wastewater treatment costs for beer makers while providing manufacturers with a more cost-effective means of creating renewable, naturally derived fuel cell technologies.

“Breweries use about seven barrels of water for every barrel of beer produced,” said Tyler Huggins, a graduate student in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering (CEAE) and lead author of the new study. “And they can’t just dump it into the sewer because it requires extra filtration.”

The process of converting biological materials, or biomass, such as timber into carbon-based battery electrodes is currently used in some energy industry sectors. But, naturally occurring biomass is inherently limited by its short supply, impact during extraction and intrinsic chemical makeup, rendering it expensive and difficult to optimize.

However, the CU Boulder researchers utilize the unsurpassed efficiency of biological systems to produce sophisticated structures and unique chemistries through cultivation of a fast-growing fungus, Neurospora crassa, in the sugar-rich wastewater produced by a similarly fast-growing Colorado industry: breweries.

“The wastewater is ideal for our fungus to flourish in, so we are happy to take it,” Huggins said.

By growing their feedstock in wastewater, the researchers say they were able to better dictate the fungus’s chemical and physical processes from the start - thereby creating one of the most efficient naturally derived lithium-ion battery electrodes known to date while cleaning the wastewater in the process.

The findings were published recently in the American Chemical Society journal Applied Materials & Interfaces.

If the process were applied on a large scale, breweries could significantly reduce their municipal wastewater costs while manufacturers would gain access to a cost-effective incubating medium for advanced battery technology components.

“The novelty of our process is changing the manufacturing process from top-down to bottom-up,” said Zhiyong Jason Ren, an associate professor in CU Boulder’s CEAE Department and a co-author of the new study. “We’re bio-designing the materials right from the start.”

Huggins and study co-author Justin Whiteley, also of CU Boulder, have filed a patent on the process and created Emergy, a startup aimed at commercializing the technology.

“We see large potential for scaling because there’s nothing required in this process that isn’t already available,” Huggins said.

The researchers have partnered with Boulder’s Avery Brewing Company to explore a larger pilot program for the technology. Huggins and Whiteley recently competed in the finals of a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored startup incubator competition at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois.

“This research speaks to the spirit of entrepreneurship at CU Boulder,” said Ren, who plans to continue experimenting with the mechanisms and properties of the fungus growth within the wastewater. “It’s great to see students succeeding and creating what has the potential to be a transformative technology. Energy storage represents a big opportunity for the state of Colorado and beyond.”

The CUB students aren’t the first to notice the power in beer waste: In 2015 another startup, Waste2Watergy, formed at Oregon State University, secured a $225,000 federal grant to advance technology that cleans organics from brewery wastewater while producing electricity. And brewers themselves have begun putting their wastewater to all kinds of productive uses in recent years –Bear Republic and Sierra Nevada have both used it to produce biogas to power their operations, while MillerCoors and a handful of Maine breweries are turning it into animal feed.


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