A pilot project this summer between Rochester Institute of Technology and Wyoming County-based Synergy Biogas LLC could reduce an environmental concern, solve a disposal problem and lead to a new way to produce fuel for vehicles—all through the use of algae.
Jeffrey Lodge, associate professor in the Thomas Gosnell School of Life Sciences, is running a three-month pilot program at Synergy Biogas, a high-tech anaerobic digester located on a farm in Covington, to grow microalgae on digested biomass.
He hopes the trial project will demonstrate the organisms’ ability to consume ammonia, phosphorus and nitrogen and reduce contaminants that make the digested biomass too nutrient-rich for release into the environment. Until the project began, the disposal of the nutrient-dense biomass had been a concern for Synergy.
Synergy collects food waste from companies around the region, such as Wegmans Food Markets Inc., and converts it to energy through an anaerobic digester. The byproduct is a digested biomass of solids and liquids. The solids can be used for cattle bedding. The liquid could be a fertilizer but it is so high in phosphorus and nitrogen it poses a danger, especially as it is applied to land and runs off into the Great Lakes, officials said.
“At some point there will be no place to put all this waste. The nutrient level is so high, much higher than wastewater going through a water treatment plant,” Lodge said. “If we treat this with the algae we can isolate the lipids in the algae and convert that into biodiesel.”
Lipids are organic compounds that are fatty acids or their derivatives and are insoluble in water but soluble in organic solvents
Lodge and his team of three students began their work the second week of June. The majority of the project is taking place on site at Synergy. The team will grow the microalgae in a 1,000-gallon tank at Synergy in a process that can be scaled up to treat 52,000 gallons of wastewater a day.
The work Lodge is doing will help Synergy expand its operations. It opened its current location in 2012. CH4 Biogas LLC, the Greenwich, Conn., parent of Synergy, is planning another facility, in the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park in Batavia, Genesee County, with a groundbreaking targeted for late summer or early fall.
“We’re at the intersection of entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Lauren Toretta, CH4 president. “We have the largest energy producing farm in New York State, and we’re trying to collect as much greenhouse gas from organic material as possible to reduce reliance on fossil fuel.”
Finding a good solution to the biomass disposal concern would be a great breakthrough, she added.
“How do we improve this technology to lessen the phosphorus load and keep it from ending up in the watershed? RIT has a real interest,” Toretta said. “They’re on the R&D side and we’re on the implementation side.”
In addition to addressing the concerns Synergy has, Lodge sees another potential benefit to using algae to treat the digested biomass. He finds that extracting sugars in the algae and feeding it to yeast leads to the creation of bioethanol, which can be used to power automobiles.
This would be an important development, Lodge said, since the U.S. government has issued a mandate calling for a 30 percent reduction of ethanol made from corn by 2030.
“That means we would not be using lands that could be dedicated for food,” he said.
Few people outside of RIT are studying algae as a source for creating ethanol, Lodge said.
“Right now, people are looking at lumber applications (for making ethanol). Those processes are expensive and we’re still making too much from corn,” Lodge said.
“The key to all this is to find a way to grow the algae in an inexpensive way, and it’s good we have somebody who has wastewater they don’t want to use.”
Lodge hopes to continue working with Synergy at its new location in Batavia once it opens.