Microbes Turn Waste to Power

Microscopic single celled organisms could become the energy giants in the near future. In Erie, the Allegheny Front's Lisa Ann Pinkerton found a vat of microbes turning wastewater into electricity.

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Microscopic single celled organisms could become the energy giants in the near future. Across the country, scientists are tapping into the power of micro organisms to convert waste into electricity, break down greenhouse gases, or even to power fuel cells. In Erie, the Allegheny Front's Lisa Ann Pinkerton found a vat of microbes turning wastewater into electricity.

At the Welch's Plant outside of Erie, a giant refrigerator stores over of 17 million gallons of grape juice ready to be bottled. (DOOR SND OPENING) The room is about the size of a gymnasium, it's covered with tile and filled with large silver tanks. Plant Manager Paul Zorzie says, to clean a tank they first rinse with water to clean out the remaining juice.

ZORZIE: Our juice would be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent sugar...so what goes down the drain might be .3 and lower than that.

Since that water isn't contaminated with chemicals, Welch's thinks it could be put to better use and save them some money.

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Behind the plant, the faint smell of grape juice wafts from a bubbling tank of waste water, like a purple jacuzzi. Circulating the water keeps it fresh for Gannon University Professor Rick Diz and the Ohio biotechnology firm NanoLogix. In a nearby shed, the researchers have built a PILOT system to covert the sugar in that grape juice wastewater into electricity. Diz says he's coaxing millions of micro organisms to consume the sugar and produce hydrogen.

DIZ 1: The sort of bacteria that produce hydrogen and actually other bio fuels of one sort or another just love sugar. Just like for people, sugar is the easiest thing to digest just like many organisms.

The process begins by continually pumping the waste sugar water into a 300 gallon holding tank, Diz calls it the Bio-Reactor.

DIZ: This tank actually is packed full of very tiny small little plastic pieces that stay in the tank, bacteria grow and coat all the surfaces inside of the tank and that allows us to pump water through the tank fairly quickly.

He says if you keep introducing food, the microbe population will double every 24-48 minutes. So his goal is to keep the bio-reactor's conditions just right to encourage hydrogen producing microbes to grow, while at the same time discouraging methane producing ones. Diz says various laboratories across the country are already producing methane from waste using microbes. But he says burning methane to make electricty, while easier, contributes to climate change.

DIZ: One of the nice things about hydrogen is not only that it contains more energy it just produces water as an exhaust gas, where as methane when it burns produces carbon dioxide.

(FADE UP PUMP SND)When the microbes produce enough gas, a pressure pump is tripped and it pulls the gas out of the Bio Reactor through a special solution. The solution extracts carbon dioxide out of the gas and turns it into a solid.

DIZ: We're not putting it back in the atmosphere its turning into...in this case sodium bicarbonate.

Now, only hydrogen is left and it's stored in a high pressure holding tank like those used to blow up helium balloons.

DIZ: And so far we're been quite successful...we have used that gas to run an engine that generated electricity for us on just a demonstration purpose.

Diz says the Welche's system is the only one in the US to have done this outside a laboratory setting. After months of refinement, he says a gallon of wastewater, that was .3% sugar, will produce 1 liter of hydrogen. Nanologix CEO Bret Barnhizer says now that the ".3%" system has been perfected, they are beginning work on wastewater that's 16 percent sugar.

BARNHIZER 1: So if you just do the math you should be able to free up 55 liters of volume for one 16% concentration gallon.

The Erie Welch's plant spends around one and a half million dollars a year for electricity and wastewater treatment each. It hopes a large scale bio reactor built this spring will put a dent in these bills. If its successful, Barhnhizer says its very likely Welch's will build Bio Reactors for it's other 3 plants. Once it can be proved commercially viable, he thinks many of the nation's over 200 beverage makers and bottlers won't be far behind.

BARNHIZER: We envision it as being much cheaper but overall it's just the right thing to do for a low carbon foot print.

BARNHIZER says if the Hydrogen Economy people see for the future is to be a sustainable one, scientists will have to move away from conventional means of making hydrogen. Currently, electrolysis is the most common method. But its expensive and uses larege amounts of water, and natural gas, in addition to the greenhouse gases it produces. Barnhizer says micro organisms, on the other hand could grow to become big players in the emerging hydrogen economy, for their thrifty way of converting waste into energy.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Lisa Ann Pinkerton