CU-Boulder turns brewery wastewater into batteries

Next with Kyle Clark. 9NEWS @ 6. 10/10/16

Hey, you.

You, sitting on your couch after work, drinking a beer, reading some Next stuff...

You are well on your way to helping our planet. No really. It's true. CU-Boulder told us so.

A new study conducted by their researchers shows that we can use the wastewater from the beer-making process, and turn it into batteries.

"We were looking for a more sustainable solution for these battery materials," Tyler Huggins, a CU graduate student, told us. He's a part of the team that works with the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, and he wrote the study. "We looked to nature. Nature has very little waste and doesn't require a lot of energy."

Batteries are powered by graphite, 98 percent of which comes from out of the United States. It's also not so great for the planet, because the resources need to be mined. The goal became to make more batteries domestically, and do it in a natural way.

The team started working two years ago. They tested various local, natural materials, including construction waste, for about a year. That's when a light bulb went off - fungus!

"We actually saw another lab that was working with it (to produce ethanol), and we were like, 'Oh, wow. Wait a second. What is that? We could actually use this,'" Huggins said.

The "this" he's referring to is technically called Neurospora crassa. He said it's actually well-studied in the fungus research community (that's a thing?), and it was discovered in a bakery back in the 1800s.

Beer-making leaves behind a lot of sugar in the wastewater, and sugar provides the nutrients for the Neurospora crassa fungus to grow. CU researchers threw it in an oven, and out popped a carbon-based product that can be used to power batteries, instead of graphite. Huggins said the fungus increases the amount of power a battery can store.

A barrel of beer produces seven barrels of wastewater. Sure, the fungus can be grown in a lab, but the brewery industry is making enough.

"We wanted to take it to the next step," Huggins said. "We wanted to utilize waste-stores and make it sustainable, so we looked at different wastewater. Brewery wastewater is one of the most rapidly-growing wastewaters, and it's packed full of this freely available sugar."

Breweries cannot dump wastewater into sewer systems because native organisms will eat it, grow rapidly and suck the oxygen from the water, killing everything in it. 

Avery Brewing company worked with CU to test the research, which should save breweries money once another industry wants their waste.

Here's the catch: don't start chugging just yet. We're a couple of years away from this research turning into big-time manufacturing. Once it takes off, we should get one cell phone battery for every liter of waste water.

We asked Huggins if he's basically trying to tell us that drinking beer is going to be good for the environment. He laughed, and said: "Yes, domestic production of beer could also help to promote the domestic production of batteries - that could be beneficial to our society."

The research was funded by the Office of Naval Research and combined the work of a few departments at CU.

Copyright 2016 KUSA


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