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Poop to Petrol

The Q microbe dines on waste to make methanol

By Juliane Poirier

In a curious scene from the bestselling memoir Three Cups of Tea, humanitarian protagonist Greg Mortenson—himself no stranger to Third World savvy—highlights a Pakistani villager's reaction to a herd animal's defecation in the road. Almost the very moment the yak drops its waste on the ground, a woman is on all fours scooping up the droppings, then deftly slapping them on a nearby wall where they stick fast. Later, the dried dung will be used as fuel for a cooking fire. In the treeless mountains of Northern Pakistan, people preserve what cost-effective fuels nature provides. Yak scat is precious there.

In the Bay Area, herd animal excrement can appear no more precious or useful than what people flush from toilet to treatment plants for processing. But that human waste not broken down contributes to sludge—toxic for the environment and costly to get rid of. We can't slap fecal solids on a wall and burn them later, Third World–style (although sludge does at times get incinerated). But with a new green technology, recycled waste may help create alternative fuel for our cars—while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and saving on the operation costs of water treatment facilities.

Entrepreneurs in Massachusetts, collaborating with green technology waste recyclers in Israel, have found a way to, in their words, "turn poop to petrol" at water-treatment plants. Their sustainable technology promises to help treatment plants run more cost-effectively, greatly reduce production of sludge and create ethanol with extraordinary efficiency. This breakthrough is all thanks to a little something University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Sue Lesthine scooped up from the dirt at Boston's Quabbin Reservoir: a microbe she dubbed "Q." Remarkably, it eats almost any nonfood matter and produces cellulosic ethanol in a single step.

Jeff Hausthor, a cofounder of Qteros, a venture capital energy company formed around the Q microbe, explains that Lesthine had long studied microbes to better understand how organisms efficiently break down in the woods. "After 25 years of searching the world for microbes," Hausthor said, "she came across one that wasn't behaving like the others. It was producing ethanol, which is odd."

Four years and 45 green-collar jobs later, Qteros is busy collaborating with Israel's Applied CleanTech (ACT) to revolutionize methodology at water treatment plants. Applied CleanTech recycles raw materials into alternative energy sources including feedstock, the stuff eaten by microbes or burned for use in alternative-energy production. The feedstock ACT extracts from solid waste is lignin-free. When Q microbe eats this unique feedstock, it produces ethanol at an efficiency rate of 90 to 95 percent.

According to Hausthor, the ACT feedstock-creating process is already in use at five plants around the world, including in Ohio. "That's just for the ACT process, for the making of the cellulose [feedstock]," said Hausthor. "We've tested the material and found it works very well with the Q microbe. So we're building a demonstration facility and then taking calls from municipalities interested in our green technology. It can provide a value-added product for water-treatment waste facilities."

According to Hausthor, this technology will make treatment plants significantly more efficient and less costly because they can either sell the ethanol they produce or use it to run the facility. "And it will help save the world," Hausthor adds, almost offhandedly. "Today, they're making corn ethanol, and you have to make it where the corn is. Here, we're making it where the people and the cars are." (That does describe Boston, at least in a few of the ways it differs from Northern Pakistan.)

The two collaborating technology companies claim that in addition to producing ethanol, the treatment facility, using the ACT technology for extracting biosolids from raw sewage, is expected to reduce sludge formation by up to 75 percent, meaning a potential reduction in methane gas produced by untreated sludge. On-site ethanol production would provide reduction in GHG emissions, and a more efficient production method would reduce energy inputs. According to Hausthor, this new green technology will be commercially available for use in water treatment plants by 2011.

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