Biofuel breakthrough?

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Our customer is every municipality that has a wastewater treatment plant. It will provide a value-added product for municipal waste water plants, thereby making treatment plants much less expensive to run and helping local governments throughout the world with their constrained budgets.” –Jeff Hausthor, Qteros co-founder and senior project manager, on his company’s new process for turning municipal and agricultural liquid waste into ethanol fuel for cars

Could be a neat idea, or could eventually turn out to be another technological dead end in the search for renewable sources of vehicle fuel. But a new process developed jointly by Qteros of Marlborough, MA (and what marketing genius came up with THAT unpronounceable name???) and Applied CleanTech (ACT) based in Israel say they’ve developed a solution for turning cellulose from municipal and agricultural liquid waste into ethanol fuel for vehicles.

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The companies are using Qteros’ Q Microbe and ACT’s Recyllose production process to make ethanol from sewage sludge – creating a potential one-two combination punch that solves fuel source and sewage disposal problems in one shot.

ACT says it spent six years developing its integrated sewage recycling solution, with the high cellulose and low moisture content of the Recyllose produced by its process helping to generate more efficient ethanol production.

Here’s the real trick to all of this: By using ACT’s feedstock production process in combination with Qteros’ Q Microbe, they say, allows an ethanol production plant to produce 120–135 gallons of ethanol per ton of Recyllose.

That means positive economics for the production of cellulosic ethanol could be viable at a smaller scale – meaning a wastewater plant that handles 150 million gallons a day (roughly serving a population of about 2 million people) could be sufficient to supply a smaller-scale ethanol plant with cellulose.

Jeff Hausthor, Qteros’ co-founder and senior project manager, says one of the reasons this can be done is due to the low amount of “lignin” in Recyllose.

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Lignin is a major component of plant cell walls that is difficult to degrade and thus can inhibit the efficient conversion to ethanol.

However, the Recyllose stock material improves cellulosic plant operational efficiency 20% over higher lignin content feedstocks – thus leading to more efficient and profitable ethanol production at smaller volumes, Hausthor notes.

“It also helps answer the question of what municipalities can do with their sewage sludge,” adds Israel Biran, ACT’s CEO. “That’s a major challenge now facing every wastewater treatment plant operator.”

Now, is this a silver bullet for both our petroleum dependency and wastewater treatment problems? No way, no how – at least not yet. But it sure has some interesting possibilities – and it’s one of the closest things yet I’ve seen to a way to make fuel from our daily waste stream. That’s why I for one am hoping this – or some version of this technology – pans out in the very near future.

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