Meltem Urgun Demirtas, an environmental engineer in Argonne's Energy Systems Division, is the principal investigator in a break-through biogas technology that could change the waste-to-fuel industry. Credit: Argonne National Laboratory
Huge amounts of organic waste are generated each year in the United States, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). This creates a sizable market for technologies that can convert these wastes into usable products. The DOE's Argonne National Laboratory has developed a simple and efficient process to do that.
Argonne's process delivers a gas that is close to pipeline quality (greater than 90 percent methane) and generates fertilizer grade byproducts as the byproduct of anaerobic digestion (a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen). The process captures and sequesters the carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide generated naturally during biological methane production, accelerating renewable methane production rates by 10 percent to 30 percent while sequestering carbon dioxide.
"Argonne leads the way in this technology." - Hassan Loutfi, a senior process engineer at Roeslein Alternative Energy LLC.
The initial market for the new process is food waste digesters and farm operations, especially manure digesters. Such digesters are a natural fit for the new process because anaerobic digestion is a widespread and proven technology used by U.S. wastewater treatment plants, farms and food waste processors to stabilize wastes and produce biogas.
Analytical Chemist Lionel Mojekwu assists Environmental Engineer Meltem Urgun Demirtas on research for a new patent-pending biogas technology in the Energy Systems Division lab at Argonne. Credit: Argonne National Laboratory
To scale up the new technology to meet these market demands, Argonne partnered with St. Louis, Missouri-based Roeslein Alternative Energy LLC, which has a test site in northern Missouri. The two organizations teamed up after Meltem Urgun Demirtas, an Argonne principal investigator and environmental engineer, presented a paper on the project at the Bioenergy Conference held by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's (EERE) Bioenergy Technologies Office in Washington, D.C., in June 2015.
Urgun Demirtas recalls that Roeslein executives "came up to me afterward and suggested that I needed a demonstration site. That's when the company opened its doors to us." She quickly realized that "the company's vision aligned well with Argonne's patent-pending process."
Roeslein executives agree. "Argonne has the capabilities to help Roeslein get the results it needs," said Hassan Loutfi, a senior process engineer with the company. "Argonne leads the way in this technology. We have a good relationship with Meltem and that, in itself, provides the resources we need for technical assistance. It's her knowledge and research that can improve this technology." The two organizations formally began working together in May 2016.
The potential economic benefits of the partnership are many, and they begin here in Illinois. The state ranks fourth in the nation for methane production potential from biogas sources, according to the American Biogas Council (ABC). Illinois has 136 operational biogas systems, and it could develop about 300 new systems, based on the amount of organic material available.
These biogas systems could generate about $201 million in capital investment, creating roughly 1,675 short-term construction jobs, 134 long-term jobs and numerous industry-supporting jobs. The new systems could also generate enough electricity to power 13,553 homes or enough renewable natural gas to fuel 33,825 vehicles, according to ABC. In turn, this renewable fuel could reduce emissions in the state by the equivalent of 4.6 trillion tons of carbon dioxide.
In addition to the economic benefits for wastewater treatment plants, farms and the waste digestion industry, Argonne's innovative biogas conversion process provides environmental benefits. These include increased use of renewable natural gas, reduced fugitive methane emissions, less need for synthetic fertilizers, and increased land restoration.
Argonne seeks to license this technology, said Priscilla Antunez, a business development executive in Argonne's Technology Commercialization and Partnerships Division. "We need more partners to help further the impact of this research," Antunez said.
This technology is funded by the DOE-EERE's Bioenergy Technologies Office.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) supports early-stage research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that make energy more affordable and strengthen the reliability, resilience, and security of the U.S. electric grid.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.