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Turning Beer Wastewater into Energy Storage Benefits Breweries, Battery Manufacturers

beerBeer wastewater can be converted to materials needed to make energy storage cells — a development that researchers say could be a “win-win” for breweries and battery manufacturers.

University of Colorado Boulder engineers have developed a process that uses a biological organism cultivated in brewery wastewater to create the carbon-based materials used in energy storage.

This could reduce costs and improve environmental sustainability for both industries, the researchers say. If the process were applied on a large scale, breweries could potentially reduce their wastewater treatment costs while manufacturers would gain access to a cost-effective means of creating renewable fuel cell technologies.

Some energy sectors currently convert biomass such as timber into carbon-based battery electrodes. But, naturally occurring biomass is inherently limited by its short supply, impact during extraction and intrinsic chemical makeup. This, the engineers say, makes it expensive and difficult to optimize.

To address these challenges, the CU Boulder team cultivated a fast-growing fungus, Neurospora crassa, in the sugar-rich wastewater produced by a fast-growing Colorado industry: breweries.

“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 and lead author of the new study. “And they can’t just dump it into the sewer because it requires extra filtration. The wastewater is ideal for our fungus to flourish in, so we are happy to take it.”

By cultivating their feedstock in wastewater, the researchers were able to better dictate the fungus’s chemical and physical processes from the start. This allowed them to create what they say is “one of the most efficient naturally derived lithium-ion battery electrodes known to date” while also cleaning the wastewater in the process.

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

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

The researchers have partnered with Avery Brewing in Boulder in order to explore a larger pilot program for the technology.

While converting wastewater into energy storage is a new concept, other breweries are already saving money on utility bills by treating wastewater to produce freshwater and electricity.

Kona Brewing Co.’s new high-efficiency brewery includes an on-site resource recovery center, built by PurposeEnergy, that will allow it to recycle its wastewater and other brewing byproducts to produce electricity, heat and clean water. Kona Brewing says the resource recovery center will help it reduce its water usage to less than half what typical craft breweries use.

And in California, Seismic Brewing Company and Lagunitas Brewing Company have reduced their water footprint and water bills after installing Cambrian Innovation water treatment systems that convert spent brewing water into reusable water.

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