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Mississippi State researchers harnessing power of sludge

In the not too distant future, our vehicles may be running on biodiesel fuel produced from fatty microorganisms grown in sludge from wastewater treatment plants. That’s a project underway by a research team at Mississippi State University (MSU) that will be part of solving the country’s energy dilemma. It will also figure into the state’s role as a leader in the production of alternative fuels.

Todd French, a microbiologist, and Rafael Hernandez, a chemical engineer, are collaborating on the project at MSU’s Sustainable Energy Research Center under the direction of Kirk H. Schulz, vice president for research and economic development. Established in 2006, the center has received grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, Region Four.

“In addition to treating wastewater, we take advantage of what’s there to create oil, converting the nutrients into oil,” Hernandez said. “We’re in the process of collaborating with a company in southern California on producing this product for a practical application. They estimate they can produce a fuel at less than $3 per gallon.”

The professors hope to finalize an agreement with the company by the first of May. At this point, they can say only that it’s a company with an interest in Mississippi.

“The best data we have in the laboratory indicates we can accumulate oil and it can be extracted and converted into a fuel,” French said. “We can demonstrate that if the funding comes through and by working with this company. They can start making it in 12 to 18 months.”

Schulz agrees that moving this research project to production is practical. “The fact that we’re such a strong agriculture state makes us a leader in alternative fuels and plays into our research,” he said. “We’re doing nationally recognized research that can make a national impact. Some things are more effective in other states, but bio fuel fits well with us. We’re leading that effort.”

He sees this type of research as a definite tool for economic development in the state. “We’ve had a great experience with the Raspet Flight Laboratory as an incubator for the state and the aero industry it’s brought in. I think we’ll see the same thing in the bio fuels industry. I’m very proud of the innovative work at the center. This is one of many projects going on there.”

The creation of bio fuel from wastewater treatment sludge is also a winning proposition for cities of all sizes. “The beauty of the process is that it will work for all size treatment plants in rural and urban settings,” Schulz said. “Cities will make money on it or save money by producing the fuel they can use.”

French points out that in addition to producing fuel, wastewater treatment facilities must continue treating water to environmental protection standards. “A city doesn’t have to have expertise in making this fuel. It can contract with a company that has the technology to convert the sludge,” he added.

The researchers say oil companies will welcome other sources of oil. “They can refine it and distribute it through their system,” French said. “They’re interested in renewable diesel and biodiesel is growing. Some stations have it now. It’s no different in performance.”

Hernandez has been aware of the bio fuel created from sludge for several years. French became aware of it when he accompanied his team mate to a national bio fuel meeting in New Orleans where the subject came up.

“I knew that with a cheap carbon source we could make all the fuel anyone would want,” French said. “Using sludge removed from wastewater is a source no one has to buy. Sewage water is a good growth thing because these micro organisms can grow a high percentage of oil in only four days. Their oil content can be as high as 55% to 60%, compared to only 18% for soybeans.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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