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Chemical engineer aims to transform sludge into fuel, valuable products

Bennett Leckrone, Marissa McDaid and Colleen Carow | Apr 8, 2019
Photo by: Ben Siegel

Chemical engineer aims to transform sludge into fuel, valuable products

Bennett Leckrone, Marissa McDaid and Colleen Carow | Apr 8, 2019

Photo by: Ben Siegel

An Ohio University professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering is working on turning the hazardous sludge produced by wastewater treatment plants into fuel, with the potential to dramatically reduce costs and electricity consumption – starting with the City of Athens, Ohio.

Gerardine Botte, Distinguished Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Center for Electrochemical Engineering Research (CEER), previously developed GreenBox, a device that can transform smog-forming emissions from diesel and industrial exhaust, or wastewater, into hydrogen for use in fuel cells, with clean water as the byproduct.

Botte now aims to use the same scientific principles to create fuel from sludge – the non-recyclable wastewater product produced by water treatment plants. Her current research, backed by a $199,992 grant from the Ohio Water Development Authority, began at the Athens Wastewater Treatment Plant in January.

Botte hopes to use electrochemistry, specifically electrolysis, to extract useful compounds like hydrogen from the sludge, allowing for more of it to be repurposed. Creating fuels from hydrogen, which Botte described as the “cleanest fuel,” could also benefit the energy consumption of wastewater treatment plants. 

“It’s transformational in natural resources, and it’s transformational in energy and the environment,” Botte said. “We’re treating the real sludge. We’re not synthesizing a mimic of it. It puts us in a position to make changes much faster.”

Sludge, which represents a huge operational cost to wastewater treatment plants, is often put in a landfill. Botte’s research could create benefits beyond the realm of energy and the environment, according to Athens City Service Safety Director Andy Stone, MS ‘13, who is also a Russ College civil engineering alumnus.

“If we can save on costs, it will pass that savings on to the users of the sewer system,” Stone said. “Her work has the potential to help, not only the environment, but also the economy.”

Botte noted that Athens’ wastewater facility treats one million gallons of wastewater a day on average. From that, 1.1 tons of wet sludge are produced. For a facility like this one, disposal of wet sludge can cost $225 thousand per year – about 35 percent of the facility’s operating budget.

“Even if we reduce the amount of sludge by 50 percent, we’re reducing the operational cost of the wastewater treatment plant by 50 percent in terms of disposal of the sludge,” Botte said.

Stone called allowing Botte to conduct research in the plant a win-win for both Athens and Ohio University.

“Insofar as I can provide a real world laboratory for professors and OHIO to do cutting-edge research, that benefits Athens and the wider region,” Stone said.

Russ College doctoral student and CEER researcher Payman Sharifi is collaborating with Botte with the project. He helped take the first samples in March at the Athens treatment facility.

“It’s special when I get to visit the wastewater treatment plant to take samples, because I get the pleasure of being involved outside of the laboratory,” Sharifi said. “This project helps focus my studies in the field of wastewater treatment.”

Botte hopes that in addition to hydrogen, other organic, high-value groups can be extracted from the wastewater as well, which could lead to the synthesis of chemicals from waste.