Engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed an innovative bio-manufacturing process that uses a biological organism cultivated in brewery wastewater to create the carbon-based materials needed to make energy storage cells.

This unique pairing of breweries and batteries could set up a win-win opportunity by reducing expensive wastewater treatment costs for beer makers while providing manufacturers with a more cost-effective means of creating renewable, naturally-derived fuel cell materials.

"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."

Some energy industry sectors already convert biomass such as timber into carbon-based battery electrodes by heating the biomass in the absence of oxygen, a process known as pyrolysis. But naturally-occurring biomass is inherently limited by the restricted supply, impact during extraction and intrinsic chemical makeup, rendering it expensive and difficult to optimize.

As an alternative approach, the CU Boulder engineers took advantage of the unsurpassed efficiency of biological systems to produce sophisticated structures and unique chemistries, by cultivating a fast-growing fungus called Neurospora crassa in the sugar-rich wastewater produced by breweries. "The wastewater is ideal for our fungus to flourish in, so we are happy to take it," said Huggins.

"The [brewery] wastewater is ideal for our fungus to flourish in, so we are happy to take it."Tyler Huggins, University of Colorado Boulder

By cultivating their feedstock in wastewater, the researchers were able control the fungus's chemical and physical processes from the start. Again using pyrolysis, they were then able to convert the fungal biomass into one of the most efficient naturally-derived lithium-ion battery electrodes known to date, while also cleaning the wastewater in the process. Their findings are published in a paper in Applied Materials & Interfaces.

If this process were applied on a large scale, breweries could potentially reduce their municipal wastewater costs significantly, while manufacturers would gain access to a cost-effective incubating medium for advanced battery technology components.

"The novelty of our process is changing the manufacturing process from top-down to bottom-up," said Zhiyong Jason Ren, an associate professor in CU Boulder's Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and a co-author of the paper. "We're biodesigning the materials right from the start."

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. "We see large potential for scaling because there's nothing required in this process that isn't already available," said Huggins.

The researchers have partnered with Avery Brewing in Boulder in order to explore a larger pilot program for the technology. Huggins and Whiteley recently competed in the finals of a US Department of Energy-sponsored start-up incubator competition at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois.

"This research speaks to the spirit of entrepreneurship at CU Boulder," said Ren, who plans to continue experimenting with the mechanisms and properties of fungal growth within the wastewater. "It's great to see students succeeding and creating what has the potential to be a transformative technology. Energy storage represents a big opportunity for the state of Colorado and beyond."

This story is adapted from material from the University of Colorado Boulder, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.