Researchers at Western Michigan University (WMU) are working to develop two biofuel production processes that could help the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan move toward environmental sustainability. The goal of the first project, Bronco Biodiesel, is to perfect a process to convert trap grease, used vegetable oil from restaurants and other facilities, into biodiesel. The second project, which is still in its early stages will attempt to find a viable algae strain that could be used for both waste treatment and as a feedstock for biodiesel or ethanol production.
Dr. Steve Bertman, a professor of chemistry at WMU, is the lead researcher for both projects. He says that the projects' goals are bigger than just producing renewable fuels.
“Our main goal is to help enhance urban sustainability. Trap grease poses a serious challenge to urban waste management and water treatment facilities...We'd like to provide an alternative market for these fats, oils and greases,” Bertman said.
The problem with the fats, oils and greases that Bertman and his team deal with is that they are very diverse in their origin, their content and their chemical makeup. In the past each source would have to be processed in a different way in order to remove water content and other non-fermentable elements. Bronco Biodiesel is working out a way to standardize the processing so that all of their feedstocks can be processed at once. This, according to Bertman, is the biggest challenge to scaling up to the 500,000 – 1 million gallon production level the team is hoping to reach in the near future.
Bertman and his colleagues, anthropology professor Dr. Sarah Hill and chemistry professor Dr. John Miller, are hoping that this project will aid the city of Kalamazoo by relieving the strain that trap and other waste greases put on the waste management system and by using the finished product to fuel its bus fleet.
"My interests lie in working with cultural conceptions of waste, how to pay for waste management, and how we can recover useful materials — and energy — from wastes. Plumbing infrastructure allows us to dump greases down the drain where they wind up in city sewer lines," Hill said. "Sewer collector systems all over the country are failing and those that aren't will do so in the coming decades. Rate payers don't typically like to pay for line improvement. So finding ways of keeping aging systems intact will be part of an emerging set of practices — at the household level — necessary, to avoid costly line fixes."
The City of Kalamazoo is behind the project. City Commissioner David Anderson helped the group find a space for their test plant and believes that the city will not only benefit from the project but also serve as an example to other municipalities of what is possible when it comes to using reusing waste products.
“When I first heard of the project I thought it was a fantastic idea and hit every bell. When you begin to look at the model, ethanol is weak, so what can be better than taking something that is disposed of and using it to create renewable fuels,” Anderson said. “We have a municipal sewer system and one of our biggest problems is getting trap grease out of the system. We've provided some really rent-free space for the project and are trying to take this from a lab-based process to a full production process.”
Not Just Waste Fuel
Algae is also on the radar at WMU. The group is currently looking for grant funding to explore using algae as both a feedstock for fuel and, in keeping with the idea of sustainability, in water treatment applications. According to Bertman, the algae project came up when he and his colleagues started looking at the strain that biofuels are putting on the U.S. agricultural system from a sustainability standpoint.
The project is in its early stages and the researchers are open to all possibilities regarding the strain of algae they're looking for and what type of biofuel would come out of the process, though Bertman admits that ethanol would be a better option since the commercial infrastructure for it already exists.
"Ethanol from algae is the same as ethanol from any other source. If we can make it economically then certainly there will be a market for it,” Bertman said.
The plan is to cultivate the algae by using it at water treatment facilities where it would feed on the nutrient rich waste water, removing content that would need to be removed by other means anyway. From there, some of the algae would be removed and either drained of oils for ethanol production or used as organic feedstock for biodiesel production. Though they don't have the money to work on the project on a large scale, Bertman is confident that projects like this are the key to moving away from dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.
"This project is also a waste management project. We're getting our algae from wastewater treatment systems (phosphorous and nitrogen) — including systems designed to remove excess nutrients from natural rivers," Hill said. "Like the grease project, our thrust is to recover energy from a waste management system. And, as in the grease undertakings, my interest is seeing how we can institute culture change, or at least at the outset, understanding what cultural factors impede more successful exploitation of waste resources."