Sustainable America Blog

Wastewater to biofuel?

Open Biodiesel by

The field of advanced biofuels is full of variety. But the future of biofuel is uncertain as no one yet knows the magic ingredients that could propel biofuels to the top of the renewable fuel market.

‘Feedstocks’ refer to the basic ingredients used to create a biofuel. First generation ethanol producers have worked with feedstocks like corn and jatropha seeds but the issue there is a food vs. fuel debate, and with this year’s drought we have seen how rising corn prices call into question our reliance on corn as an ethanol feedstock when the limited corn supplies are needed to feed livestock.

The ‘second generation’ biofuels are trying to utilize feedstocks that are not also food products. There are groups working with all different kinds of different grasses, invasive plant species and algae, for example.

Of these non-food feedstocks, so far it seems that algae-based biofuel holds especially promising potential. There are groups using algae to make biodiesel and recently a company called Sapphire Energy released a new algae ‘biocrude’ which is just like crude oil in that it can be used in existing engines without needing to be mixed in with regular crude oil (this is known as a ‘drop in’ fuel).

Now SWW Energy in Australia, in partnership with U.S. based White Mountain Group, is working on a technology that would enable creation of biofuel directly from wastewater.

Some other companies have already been experimenting with using wastewater pools to grow algae for conversion to biofuel, but SWW’s process extracts the bits of vegetable and petroluem oil already existing in wastewater and converts them into a biofuel. The water they have been using for trials is similar to the water found in the waste streams of populated, developed areas. In fact, it resembles the kind of water you might find exiting a car wash for example.

While the results of SWW’s preliminary testing are positive, it remains to be seen whether they can convert wastewater to biofuel on a commercial scale.

All this innovation in the field of biofuels is evidence of the market potential, but only time will show which solution comes out on top.

In the meantime, some really interesting groups like NASCAR and the military are using biofuels to run everything from race cars to the Blue Angel jets.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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