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

In addition to reducing expensive wastewater treatment costs for beer makers, the process could provide manufacturers with a more cost-effective means of creating renewable, naturally derived fuel cell technologies.

“Breweries use about seven barrels of water for every barrel of beer produced,” notes Tyler Huggins, a graduate student in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. “And they can’t just dump it into the sewer because it requires extra filtration.”Breweries use about seven barrels of water for every barrel of beer produced, and they can’t dump it into the sewer because it requires extra filtration.Breweries use about seven barrels of water for every barrel of beer produced, and they can’t dump it into the sewer because it requires extra filtration. The process of converting biological materials, or biomass such as timber, into carbon-based battery electrodes is currently used in some energy industry sectors. But naturally occurring biomass is inherently limited by its short supply, its impact during extraction and its chemical makeup, rendering it expensive and difficult to optimize.

Instead, the researchers are cultivating a fast-growing fungus, Neurospora crassa, in the sugar-rich wastewater produced by breweries. By cultivating their feedstock in wastewater, the researchers are able to dictate the fungus’s chemical and physical processes from the start, allowing the creation of an ultra-efficient naturally derived lithium-ion battery electrode—while cleaning the wastewater in the process.

“The novelty of our process is changing the manufacturing process from top-down to bottom-up,” says Zhiyong Jason Ren, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. “We’re bio-designing the materials right from the start.”

Huggins and research associate Justin Whiteley have filed a patent on the process and created Emergy, a Boulder-based company aimed at commercializing the technology. They have partnered with Avery Brewing to explore a larger pilot program for the technology.

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