Waste2Watergy, a Corvallis startup formed at Oregon State University, has secured a $225,000 federal grant to advance technology that cleans organics from brewery wastewater while producing electricity. The company says the technology could revolutionize wastewater treatment for the entire food and beverage industry.
Developers have created a microbial fuel cell (MFC) system that generates energy from treating wastewater. Tiny microbes were designed to consume organic material; as an added bonus, the electrochemical energy created from microbial reactions in the fuel cell produce electricity.
Waste2Watergy believes MFC technology will offer significant economic/technical advantages for food and beverage companies by reducing their disposal costs and waste volumes, reducing the footprint of treatment facilities, and offering a more-sustainable process for wastewater treatment.
Treating organics-rich wastewater is energy-intensive, consuming 15 GigaWatts (GW) or 3 percent of all electrical power produced in the United States, reports the National Science Foundation. However, this water contains roughly 17 GW of potential energy. Capturing a portion of this energy through MFC technology could reduce wastewater treatment energy requirements and a more sustainable treatment process.
The startup has spent the past 18 months piloting a prototype of its microbial fuel cell technology at Widmer Brothers Brewing.
"It's been impressive to see our wastewater being cleaned and electricity generated, and it's exciting to see the technology grow from the first prototype to the larger-scale version," said Julia Person, sustainability manager for Widmer.
Widmer is testing the cell’s potential to improve metrics for water usage and production efficiency. The MFC could help reduce biological oxygen demand (BOD) levels in wastewater, lowering water treatment costs, because the microbes need very little oxygen to fuel their organic feast.
Hong Liu, a professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering and co-inventor of the core technology, called the technology a potential win-win for solving both waste and energy challenges.
"The social and long term impact is providing energy from a renewable source while benefiting human health," Liu said.
Widmer isn’t the only brewery making good use of its wastewater. Sonoma County brewery Bear Republic has introduced bioelectric technology to treat wastewater and generate biogas, Colorado-based New Belgium has made wastewater treatment and energy use a top priority, and Portuguese brewery Sociedade Central de Cervejas e Bebidas (SCC) partnered with GE to reuse wastewater for its cooling towers.