Getting Crafty: Brewing Beer From Wastewater

The Guardian US/UK | March 14, 2016

In autumn of 2014 – three years into California’s devastating drought– architect Russ Drinker became fixated on brewing beer from recycled greywater (that is, water that’s been treated after use in sinks, showers and washing clothes).

He was increasingly frustrated that the media paid little attention to water recycling. “They were focused on conservation instead. But if Californians really want to have an impact on our water use, we have to recycle our freshwater … and get over our psychological resistance to that.”

While some microbrewers have been working hard to get their water usage down – some to three gallons of water for every gallon of beer – the industry has a high water to beer ratio. Despite this, it took Drinker about a year to find a brewer up for the challenge. But when he broached the idea with the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, a craft brewer located south of San Francisco, owner Lenny Mendonca didn’t hesitate.

Last October the brewery unveiled a version of its regular Mavericks Tunnel Vision IPA made with recycled water after a blind taste test at an urban sustainability conference in the Bay Area.

Can you tell which of the brews was made with treated wastewater? (It's on the left).

Can you tell which of the brews was made with treated wastewater? (It’s on the left). Photo credit: Half Moon Bay Brewing Company

Made using the same NASA water recycling technology as astronaut Scott Kelly used during his year long stint on the International Space Station, the tasting panel couldn’t detect which of the two pints was made with recycled water.

“This is the product [where] people think that water is the most important ingredient,” said Mendonca. “So if I can demonstrate to people that not only is [greywater beer] good, but it’s great, then why wouldn’t you use that water for everything else?”

Mendonca has only made the greywater beer available for sampling twice and says commercialising the product isn’t his first priority. California can’t legally directly pump treated recycled water back into the drinking water supply, so it’s currently not practical (shortage of supply) or cost effective. His focus instead is on using the beer as a tool to catch the eye of both policymakers and the public.

Getting the legislation to bring recycled water directly into the drinking water supply, would be the first step for mass application, just as Singapore has done with its recycled water plant.

Craft brewers turn green

Brewing beer from recycled water is an unusual approach. But a growing number of craft breweries in the US are finding new ways to reduce their environmental footprint.

Weak wort, a type of sugar wastewater generated by Colorado-based Avery Brewing Co, will be donated to the city of Boulder for use in its wastewater treatment plant to break down nitrogen. This will save the city $500 (£350) per day on the acetic acid it would have purchase to do the same job, said Chris Douville, Boulder’s wastewater treatment manager.

“We were looking for a local carbon source that others see as a waste,” he said. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Boulder is currently outfitting its plants to treat nitrogen using weak wort, says Douville, and should be ready to put the new equipment online by the end of the year.

Other craft breweries, such as Lagunitas Brewing Company and Bear Republic Brewing Co in Sonoma County, California, are using a new onsite wastewater treatment system housed in a shipping container.

In spring 2016, the EcoVolt was installed at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, Calif.

In spring 2016, the EcoVolt was installed at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, Calif. Photo credit: Cambrian Innovation

The EcoVolt, developed by Boston-based startup Cambrian Innovation, is powered by electrically active bacteria that use anaerobic digestion to scrub the breweries’ wastewater of up to 90% of pollutants, according to Baji Gobburi, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

Each EcoVolt unit, which is targeted towards other boutique food and beverage operations such as wineries and dairies, can process up to 300,000 gallons of wastewater per day, and enables the breweries to reuse water in their cleaning operations and produce methane that is converted into heat and electricity.

“When Lagunitas completes the installation of its second EcoVolt, its water footprint will drop by 40%,” said Gobburi. “And the systems will also recover 20% of its facilities’ energy needs.”

It’s also been a money, time and petrol-saver. Previously, Lagunitas had to truck over 50,000 gallons a day of its concentrated wastewater to a treatment plant in Oakland over 40 miles away.

In Dexter, a town of about 4,000 people nestled in the corner of southeast Michigan, the Northern United Brewing Company has installed a smaller version of EcoVolt to treat its wastewater onsite, helped by a $200,000 (£140,000) innovative technology grant from the state of Michigan.

The technology has saved the city the millions of dollars it would have cost to give Dexter’s wastewater plant the capacity to process yeasts and sugars, said Michelle Aniol, the city’s community development manager.

“Food production here in Michigan is more of a cottage industry,” Aniol said. “So this test of the [EcoVolt] system can have implications that could be utilised throughout the rest of the state – at [cost] levels that can be more affordable for communities and businesses to grow, but get their waste within the permitted limits for discharge.”

New startup hopes to develop faster-growing crops

Modern Farmer | Nov. 10, 2015

BioConsortia Photo of plants being tested in various soils

Inside BioConsortia’s research facility, where plants are being tested in a variety of soils. (Photo credit: BioConsortia)

We talked with BioConsortia, an agricultural biotech company headquartered in Davis, Calif., that’s using a recently patented way to identify the specific combination of plant microbes to help improve crop yields in corn, wheat, and soybeans. It says that by 2017, it will be able to commercialize its first seed treatments containing the microbe combo that would enable a plant use less fertilizer yet get comparable yields.

The technology seems like what a plant breeder might do if collaborating with a microbiologist on speed.

One skeptic points out that it can be difficult to grow and mass produce such a group of microbes in the lab, so it’s not a done deal. Other companies—such as Novozymes and Monsanto—are also working with microbes. If it all pans out, it could change the face of agriculture as we know it by providing farmers with a natural alternative to genetically modified corn, soy, and wheat.

The process, dubbed Advanced Microbial Selection (AMS), inspired Khosla Ventures to invest millions in two rounds of BioConsortia’s R&D funding over the last four years. AMS scouts out each crop’s “dream team” of five to seven microbes, or microscopic organisms, that work together to boost a plant’s growth. (These microbes live both within the plant and in the soil.)

The technology seems like what a plant breeder might do if collaborating with a microbiologist on speed.

“It turns the traditional model—where microbiologists test microbes one by one—on its head,” says BioConsortia’s CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith. A serial biotech executive with a background in business and genetics, Meadows-Smith joined BioConsortia after a stint as the head of Bayer’s biological pest management division.

Here’s how the process (which was just patented last month) works, according to Meadows-Smith: First, scientists seek out the best-performing plants living in a variety of soil environments around the world, including ones stressed by drought, desert, cold, and wet conditions. Then they conduct DNA sequencing of the plants and the soils to determine what kinds of microbes are present.

Next, back in Bioconsortia’s California growth chambers, they root these plants in their original soils, then into normal and stressed soils. After observing which plants are thriving and which are faring poorly, they conduct another DNA sequencing round in the plants and the surrounding soils. The purpose is to identify all of the microbes hanging around. Some help to speed up growth by making nutrients more accessible, while others can defend against pathogens that might be present. (Think of the group as being there to help and protect—like a celebrity entourage of personal assistants and bodyguards.)

By looking closely at that entourage of microbes (collectively known as the plant’s microbiome), and comparing which specific microbes are present in the plants that are doing well with the ones those that are faring the worst, BioConsortia says it can nail down each crop’s “dream team” for each soil environment tested.

“We’re looking for that unique combination to keep the plants healthy—even with the ability to recover from drought and staving off the effects of a pathogen,” Meadows-Smith said. “The beneficial microbes have not been documented over the years, compared to the pathogens.”

To date, the company has performed experiments on corn, soybeans, and wheat. It’s in its second year of independent/third-party field trials that are testing the seed treatments (comprising the microbial “dream teams”) it has manufactured for these crops.

But even though Meadows-Smith says that the first year of field trials show that its approach increases yield by 6 percent (compared to an average of an <2 percent increase in yield for a genetically modified or hybrid approach) and a double-digit increase in stressed crops, he declined to show results or provide more details to Modern Farmer, citing confidentiality agreements.

Meadows-Smith says that the improved varieties include corn that produce greater yields, utilize fertilizer more efficiently, and are more drought tolerant, as well as wheat and soy that produce more. In the coming months, BioConsortia will start field tests for tomatoes and leafy vegetables.

“Using microorganisms is definitely the way of the future as it’s more environmentally sustainable [compared to using chemicals],” says Kari Dunfield, a professor of soil ecology at Ontario’s University of Guelph, who studies how agricultural practices affect microbial communities in soils. “The approach makes sense, as we know that microorganisms interact with each other and are synergistic.”

But the expert does express some reservations about BioConsortia’s process. “We know that it’s still really hard to grow those organisms in the lab, so that step will be tricky,” Dunfield says. “It’s one thing to know what organisms are there with the DNA, but when you have the DNA you don’t have enough to grow the organism, so that’s the rate-limiting mechanism.”

She also points out that since microbes are living organisms, they’re unpredictable—which adds a more complex aspect to production compared to working with chemicals. “When you’re selling a mixture [of microbes], you have to make sure they’re not outcompeting each other when you sell it to the farmer.”

A few years from now, Meadows-Smith wants to use Advanced Microbial Selection method to address food security for a growing world population.

But Meadows-Smith insists that BioConsortia’s approach could save millions of dollars. He says it takes $25 million to bring a microbial seed treatment to market, $60 million to do the same for a biopesticide (due to the global registration process), and $135 million for genetically modified trait (according to Peter W.B. Phillips, a professor of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan).

Advanced Microbial Selection can also speed up the research phase, Meadows-Smith claims, so products can get to market in about five years, compared to DuPont’s estimate of the 13 years it takes genetically modified crops to get to market.

“There is a long R&D phase [for GM crops], followed by field trials, field multiplication, and registration,” he said.

Meadows-Smith says that scientists first came up with the idea five years ago at BioDiscovery (BioConsortia’s subsidiary company in New Zealand) while conducting contract research for companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, and Bayer. “They had brainstorming sessions to find ways to improve the speed and efficiency of their discovery process,” Meadows-Smith said. “It was to this end that they had the breakthrough to think of this as a plant phenotype (or plant breeding question) and solution rather than a microbial question.”

He cites more dramatic numbers: The company screens 100,000 microbes in nine months, he says, while a conventional approach would take three to four years.

BioConsortia wants to sell the microbial seed treatments (which are applied directly to the seed) to distributors. If all goes well with the second year of field trials, Meadows-Smith says that a biofertilizer seed treatment—one that would need less fertilizer for comparable yields—will be commercialized by 2017.

But he doesn’t think the approach will necessarily replace other methods—such as genetic modification—across the board.

Currently, the company is focusing on the in the European and North American market. Next, Meadows-Smith says he wants to expand BioConsortia’s efforts to Latin America, Brazil and Argentina.

And a few years from now, he wants to use Advanced Microbial Selection method to address food security for a growing world population—something that’s projected to be a problem in the coming decades given stresses on the environment including drought, lack of arable land to grow sufficient amounts of food, environmental pollution, and climate change.

Meadows-Smith says that BioConsortia’s approach can develop crops that can create more harvestable yield, deposit more protein into wheat, or select for a microbiome that will improve the sugar content of plants.

“A few years from now we’d like to work on [applying this to] cassava, a staple carbohydrate for many parts of Africa,” he said.

Why Singapore won’t be going thirsty

TakePart/Participant Media | Nov. 5, 2015

Singapore's Marina Barrage reservoir

Singapore’s Marina Barrage reservoir. Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore

In just 10 years, two out of three people will be living in a country that’s struggling to meet demand for water, according to the United Nations. But even though Singapore has no aquifers or lakes, it’s unlikely that nation’s 5.5 million residents will be among the world’s thirsty.

That’s because the small island nation, which consumes 400 million gallons daily, has a water strategy that is arguably one of the most successful in the world.

“We have four national taps,” George Madhavan, the spokesperson for Public Utility Board, Singapore’s government agency in charge of water quality, conservation, and supply, said during a recent Meeting of the Minds urban-sustainability conference in California.

The “taps” flow from desalinated seawater, recycled wastewater, water collected from rainfall, and an imported supply from neighboring Malaysia.

Having a reliable source of water has always been on the government’s agenda, Madhavan said.

“Without secure and reliable access to water in Singapore, business will not come,” he said. “So that’s a top priority to get a bigger piece of the pie.”

The push to develop a mostly self-sufficient water supply has been credited to Lee Kuan Kew, the country’s first prime minister, who took on the task in response to water shortages in the 1960s and ’70s.

It wasn’t a quick fix. It took 30 years to put the system in place.

Singapore NEWater visitor museum

The NEWater visitor museum in Singapore. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

The PUB water agency says its “jewel” is the ability to recycle used water, or wastewater from sinks and toilets, into what it calls NEWater. The NEWater purification process, which Singapore launched in 2003 (after getting tips from the Orange County Water District’s wastewater-recycling plant in Southern California), meets 30 percent of daily water demand. While the recycled water is mainly used for industrial purposes, it also replenishes the country’s 17 reservoirs.

Recycled water can also supply water for drinking and cooking. According to PUB, NEWater has passed 130,000 scientific tests and exceeds the drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

Here’s what happens: The wastewater travels through a network of deep tunnel sewer pipes, then goes through conventional treatment at a sewage treatment plant. It’s then either returned to the sea or sent to one of the country’s four NEWater plants for further purification, depending on demand.

The NEWater plants follow a three-step process. First, membranes filter out small particles such as solids and bacteria. Next, reverse osmosis takes out larger contaminants. Last, the water is disinfected with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide.

But Madhavan said the government knew a large part of successfully integrating recycled wastewater to its supply hinged on whether Singaporeans would want to drink it in the first place.

“The difficult part isn’t the technology,” he said. “It’s getting the community to embrace recycled water.”

NEWater

Bottles of NEWater filled with Singapore’s purified wastewater. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

To do that, the country had to get rid of the “yuck” factor. For its NEWater branding campaign, it bottled the recycled water with a label featuring a cartoon water drop with a gigantic grin—and constructed a slick visitor center showing how the purification process works via games and interactive exhibits. The water agency also brought reporters to the Orange County Water District’s water-recycling plant, as well as to one in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Another quarter of Singapore’s daily demand is met by its two desalinization plants, which together can process 100 million gallons a day. Because the plants are energy-intensive, the country is experimenting with electrodeionization, a process that consumes less power.

The third tap comes from rainwater collected from drains, canals, rivers, and storm water collection ponds. (Residents aren’t allowed to harvest water without the government’s permission.) In combination with water imports from Malaysia, the rainwater fulfills the remaining 45 percent of Singapore’s daily water needs.

PUB is preparing for a projected doubling in demand by 2060. (Singapore’s water agreement with Malaysia is set to expire in 2061.) The agency says it’s on track to triple its NEWater production and build two new desalinization plants that together will meet 80 percent of demand in 2060.

Madhavan said Singapore thinks about water in a different way.

“You don’t want to drain it—you want to collect it,” he said.

 

How one company is feeding farms with food waste

Civil Eats | Sept. 21, 2015

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

You don’t have to dumpster dive to know that supermarkets send a steady stream of uneaten food to landfills.

Once there, the waste does more than smell bad. It also contributes to climate change by emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (one reason the USDA recently pledged to reduce food waste 50 percent nationally by 2030).

But when a new California state law [PDF] goes into effect this April, large grocery stores in the state will be required to ditch the landfill and compost or recycle their food waste instead.

In order for supermarkets to comply with the impending law, they’ll need more places to put the waste—and one Sacramento-based company appears to be well positioned to respond to this problem. California Safe Soil has developed a process that transforms truckloads of supermarket food waste into farm-ready fertilizer it calls Harvest to Harvest, or H2H.

“This was something that made perfect sense to me,” says CEO Dan Morash, who founded the startup in 2012, after leaving a career as an investment banker in the energy sector. “There’s this huge stream of waste from the supermarkets that is no longer safe to eat as it gets to the end of its shelf life, but it still has a lot of nutrients.”

Using fertilizer made from food waste also cuts down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, he adds, which can reduce the amount of nitrate runoff into local rivers and streams, which often lead to dead zones.

The company claims that since its launch in 2012, it has diverted over 2.2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill, preventing the emissions of 3.2 million pounds of greenhouse gases and preventing the need for over 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers.

Final Liquid Fertilizer ProductHow is Morash’s product different from standard compost? He worked with soil and fertilizer specialist Mark LeJeune to develop a method that fast forwards the composting process (which is fueled by aerobic digestion, or bacteria fed by oxygen that breaks down organic matter). The process turns food waste into liquid fertilizer in three hours.

First, the food is ground down into a liquid, then treated with enzymes to break down the protein, fat, and carbohydrates into the amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars. Then, it’s pasteurized (that is, heated at high temperatures) to kill any pathogens that might be present.

“The average particle size is very small—26 microns,” Morash says. “This [enables it to] mix easily with water.”

There’s a separate stream for organic and conventional food, as California Safe Soil sells an all-organic version. Both are applied to the crops via drip irrigation.

In 2012, Morash and LeJeune opened a pilot plant in Sacramento to develop the technology. The product was commercialized in 2013 and is regulated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“The California Department of Food and Agriculture is concerned about food safety, so we had to prove that [the fertilizer production process] eliminates pathogens,” Morash says. “So we did a research project called a challenge test at the University of California, Davis.”

To show that the product was effective, the company conducted additional experiments with researchers, including one at U.C. Davis and a strawberry expert at U.C. Cooperative Extension.

Morash claims that use of his fertilizer on tomatoes has upped the rate of food production by between 10 to 15 percent.

California Safe Soil’s target market is mainly large farms that grow crops like strawberries, tomatoes, leafy greens, almonds, and wine grapes. Several of the berry growers that he works with supply for Driscoll’s, Morash says.

Broccoli TrialBut orchard crops like fruit and nuts are especially well suited for this liquid fertilizer. Traditionally, orchard-based farmers “need to till the soil to get organic matter in without cutting up the roots,” he says. “So the ability to deliver organic matter to the soil in liquid form is a big positive.”

At the moment, the company processes food waste from 15 stores across five supermarket chains (Grocery Outlet, Nugget, Safeway, SaveMart, and Whole Foods) in Sacramento. Six days a week, the plant processes about 3,750 pounds of food from between seven to eight markets a day (each brings in an average of about 500 pounds daily).

The Sacramento facility is operating at capacity, but he hopes to build others in the coming years. The idea is to locate plants, like the one Sacramento, near grocery distribution centers. This way, after delivering goods to the stores, the centers’ trucks can fill up with food waste for the trip home, Morash says.

There are additional economic and environmental benefits to locating California Safe Soil plants near distribution centers, he adds. Turning food waste into fertilizer not only saves grocery stores the fees associated with sending it to a landfill, but it also prevents the greenhouse gas emissions and extra transportation costs often needed to deliver it there.

“This has a very positive environmental impact across the board,” Morash says. “It’s going to increase the sustainability of agriculture starting right here in California.”

Photos, from the top: Employees moving wasted produce into the processing machine; the final liquid fertilizer product; broccoli from a farm trial with the control on the left and the H2H produced product on the right. All courtesy of California Safe Soil.

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