Byproduct

Byproduct

Byproduct

Byproduct

Art installation at the Fulton brewery taproom sheds light on MnDRIVE sponsored sustainable wastewater treatment research.

Byproduct, a new site-specific installation by artist Aaron Dysart, opens at the Fulton Brewery Taproom on September 23 and runs through October 23, 2021. Byproduct will carbonate the façade of the taproom with shifting colors generated from an enormous mirror ball. The colors display data from a sustainable wastewater research project conducted by Paige Novak and her team at the University of Minnesota.

We often overlook the carbon dioxide bubbles drifting up the sides of a pint glass gathering to head. On the one hand, they are just a byproduct of a yeast cell. On the other hand, they are a refreshing grounding in the present moment— and the beer just doesn’t taste right without them. In Byproduct, Dysart uses this visual language of carbonation to speak to innovative research underway at Fulton’s brewery. The installation, which displays some of the team’s data as colorful ‘bubbles’ on the taproom facade, celebrates the continuing push to make the world a better place.

Manufacturing creates waste, and brewing beer is no different. Not only does brewing generate a high volume of wastewater, but this wastewater is also full of carbon-containing compounds that require a lot of energy to treat using standard technology. However, other treatment options operate differently, using bacteria to make energy instead of using energy during wastewater treatment.  

Novak and her team are working on a treatment technology for small to mid-size industries that generates energy (in the form of methane gas) and removes carbon-containing compounds. The collaboration with Dysart allowed the team to share their research with the public as they test their scalable process that treats wastewater onsite while making energy for use at the brewery.

Dysart’s installation presents two colorful light shows comparing the two treatment methods set up side-by-side, treating wastewater at the Fulton Brewery. The first compares the amount of usable energy produced by the Novak lab’s experimental technology with the existing system, which works well but is high-maintenance, energy-intensive, and expensive to use. The second explores the reduction of carbon-containing waste compounds realized through the pilot at Fulton’s brewery. 


 

Aaron Dysart is a sculptor who is interested in using visual language and spectacle to give hidden stories a broader audience. His environmental interventions showcase his love of light shows, fog machines, and data, while his objects showcase his love of a material’s ability to carry content. He has received awards from Franconia Sculpture Park, Forecast Public Art, The Knight Foundation, and The Minnesota State Arts Board, and his work has been in Art in America Magazine, Hyperallergic, Berlin Art Link, and other publications. He has shown nationally and partnered with local and national organizations including the National Park Service, Army Corp of Engineers, NorthernLights.mn, and Mississippi Park Connection. Aaron is currently a City Artist through Public Art Saint Paul. He is embedded in the city of St. Paul, and operates his studio in northeast Minneapolis.

Paige Novak is a professor and the Joseph T. and Rose S. Ling Chair in Environmental Engineering in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Among other projects, Novak and her team are working on the development of a new type of treatment technology that relies on the encapsulation of bacteria into small, gel-like beads that can be easily deployed and retained—perfect for use at small industries such as craft breweries. This technology treats the waste, and in the process, generates energy in the form of methane gas that can be used on-site. For Dysart and Novak’s collaborative project, funded by the MnDRIVE: Environment Initiative at the University of Minnesota, Novak deployed a small pilot-scale system using these encapsulated bacteria at the Fulton brewery to treat their wastewater in real time, comparing it to a much more operationally and energy-intensive treatment technology. 

Bill Arnold and Natasha Wright were collaborators in the research. Kuang Zhu, Siming Chen, and Olutooni Ajayi also worked on the project

Byproduct is funded by a McKnight Project Grant through Forecast Public Art, and a MnDRIVE: Environment Demonstration Grant through the University of Minnesota.

Photo: Aaron Dysaart © 2021

 

 

Is PFAS a Problem in Municipal Compost?

Is PFAS a Problem in Municipal Compost?

MnDRIVE brings industry and regulators together to weigh costs, benefits, solutions

by Mary Hoff 

What should researchers be researching? With many needs and finite resources, that’s an important question for MnDRIVE Environment, a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota that brings the power of University inquiry and innovation to bear on challenges industries face related to clean air, water, and land.

In early 2020, the initiative invited private sector and state agency representatives to discuss issues in need of attention related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. This class of chemicals historically has been used in a wide spectrum of consumer goods and has since been implicated as a land and water contaminant linked to a range of health risks. Of particular concern is the fact that PFAS chemicals have started cropping up at municipal compost facilities that turn materials such as grass clippings and food waste into a nutrient-filled substance that is used to enrich soil.  

One of the businesses represented at the meeting was the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) Organics Recycling Facility. The facility takes in 70,000 tons of materials every year to make compost, compost blends, and landscaping mulch. It has tested its products and found PFAS levels to be well below those that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) considers a health concern in residential soils. PFAS has shown up in water that drains off piles of materials that are in the process of breaking down, says MPCA composting and recycling specialist Kayla Walsh (as it has for other composting facilities around the state). The test results have facility managers looking for ways to continue to do good while preventing future problems.

The topic is a particularly hot one for SMSC because it would like to open a larger facility to meet increasing demand from community composting.

“We know composting is good. We’re amending the soil,” says SMSC biomass processing assistant manager Dustin Montey. At the same time, he adds, “we don’t want to be introducing a harmful substance back into society” by producing soil amendments containing PFAS.

Erin Skelly, environmental and compliance technician for the facility, notes that SMSC is grounded in the Native American principle of caring for the Earth with the next seven generations in mind. A participant in the 2020 MnDRIVE-hosted meeting, Skelly sees a need for research to find the source of the PFAS and how to get it out of the waste stream so it doesn’t end up in compost.

“There’s a lot that’s unknown about PFAS,” she says. “If it’s in compost and in soil, does it leach out? Does it get into groundwater? Do plants absorb that? There’s a lot of opportunity for research.”

MnDRIVE Environment funding is earmarked specifically for remediation. However, it also works upstream to stimulate discussion and connect stakeholders to collaborate on identifying and characterizing problems that remediation can help solve.

“Once we know where PFAS is and where it is coming from, then these issues can be put forward to remediate. That’s sort of the sweet spot where MnDRIVE funding programs come into play,” says MnDRIVE Environment industry and government liaison Jeff Standish.

For example, University of Minnesota environmental health researcher Matt Simcik and environmental engineering researcher William Arnold have been developing technology to keep PFAS from moving from landfills into groundwater. MnDRIVE Environment funding is supporting this work which, upon completion, might be used to protect water at compost sites.

MnDRIVE Environment will be continuing conversations this spring around strategies for addressing PFAS contamination in the environment. Between entities like SMSC that are seeking to protect the planet, and MnDRIVE, which stands ready to bring the power of University research to the task, the hope is that society can continue to reap the benefits of composting without exacerbating the PFAS problem, and perhaps proactively solving it.

Clean Energy from Beer Waste?

Clean Energy from Beer Waste?

MnDRIVE-funded researcher harvests natural gas from brewery wastewater

By Nick Minor

From industry pioneers like St. Paul’s Summit Brewery to small-town brewpubs, Minnesota’s craft beer industry has become a point of pride for local beer enthusiasts. But for every pint that flows through the tap, 3 to 10 pints of wastewater–high in carbohydrates, acids, and alcohol–end up in the municipal waste stream to be treated by the city. Breweries pay a premium to remove and treat this wastewater. Still, that same nutrient-rich content provides an ideal food source for hungry microbes capable of turning the waste into energy at the brewery.

With funding from the University of Minnesota MnDRIVE Environment Initiative, researchers led by Professor Paige Novak set out to treat this brewery wastewater while achieving two additional benefits: reducing the load on municipal water treatment systems and producing energy to help fuel brewery operations. 

Kuang Zhu, a recent PhD graduate from Novak’s lab, designed a 2-stage process to treat the brewery wastewater. In the first stage, microbes (called acetogens) feed on the wastewater. Housed in an airtight, oxygen-free compartment, they digest the carbohydrates in the wastewater, producing hydrogen and acetate as byproducts. These byproducts are then siphoned into a second oxygen-free compartment where microbes (called methanogens) consume the acetate, and produce methane, a significant component of natural gas. One of the team’s original innovations was to house the microbes in beads made of a carbohydrate derived from brown algae. This keeps the active microbes in the reactors where they can do their work simply and with little energy expenditure. Hydrogen collected from the first stage, and methane collected from the second can be used to generate power for the brewery while the treated water, significantly cleaner, flows to the local municipal wastewater treatment facility.

Scaling up this research from the lab to the brewery, presented its own set of challenges. Partnering with Fulton Brewing in Minneapolis, the team embarked on “months and months of troubleshooting,” Novak recalls. There were constant tweaks, leaks, and spills; parts to replace, cross-contamination, and even a small wastewater “explosion,” all within a wastewater storage room that averaged a steamy 85 degrees Fahrenheit. 

But this process, slow and tedious though it may be, is a critical part of science. Novak credits the demonstration grant from MnDRIVE, a state-funded initiative that aims to connect basic research with real-world impacts, for making this possible. “It’s such a different kind of trial and error and troubleshooting process,” explains Novak, “and there are so few funding sources for that kind of work. Going through this demonstration project has been invaluable because we figured out all those things we need to pay attention to when we do this again.” 

“Plus,” Novak adds, “it’s been really fun.”

One part of that fun is a public art exhibit that was stimulated by a requirement of MnDRIVE grants to have a public outreach component. After meeting local artist Aaron Dysart at a conference, Novak knew his data-driven approach to art would be a perfect fit for her project and for making the required outreach component much more visible. Dysart plans to create a disco ball suspended outside the Fulton taproom. Not just any disco ball, Dysart’s installation will spin at a rate proportional to the gas produced by the bioreactors. It will project color sequences linked to the ratio of hydrogen and methane. Mounted sideways, Dysart’s disco ball project will be a stream of data bubbling up from the wall of the brewery’s outdoor beer garden.

Of course, getting the bioreactor design into the real world won’t just involve science and engineering. It also requires understanding how the bioreactor fits into the marketplace. Again, thanks to MnDRIVE funding, Novak was able to partner with the Carlson School of Business to conduct some preliminary market research. “They analyzed the technology and the market,” Novak says, “and evaluated different food and beverage industries that would be a good match for our technology.” To Novak’s surprise, Carlson’s research showed that breweries weren’t the only market for the bioreactor. “Breweries don’t typically spend enough money [for this to make a big difference for them].” Instead, potato chip makers and candy manufacturers, both of which generate high concentration wastewaters, could benefit more from the team’s design. Furthermore, the business school team clearly showed that before the technology will be accepted by industries, the design must be plug and play and ready to work out of the box, regardless of the nature of the waste stream.

This goal is now much closer to reality thanks to progress made through the demonstration grant. One day, Novak hopes high concentration industrial wastewater treatment will be as simple as “getting your beads, dumping them in, and watching them go to work no matter what.” MnDRIVE funding not only helped move the technology forward, it also allowed the team to identify industries most likely to benefit from the research and provided an opportunity for consumers to learn about wastewater treatment through a public art installation.            

Nick Minor is an alumnus of the Science Communications Lab, pursuing a master’s degree in zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming. He can be reached at minor092@umn.edu.

 

Stopping PFAS in Its Tracks

Stopping PFAS in Its Tracks

UMN researchers Matt Simcik and William Arnold trap harmful chemicals before they can pass through the environment to our drinking water

by Caroline Frischmon

When you turn on the faucet, you probably trust the water in your glass will be safe to drink. For Minnesotans living in the eastern Twin Cities, this trust evaporated when toxic PFAS chemicals (or per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) infiltrated their groundwater. PFAS are found in many products, ranging from nonstick cookware and food packaging to waterproof clothing. Despite their ubiquity, scientists suspect high concentrations of the chemicals lead to cancer, obesity, and other health problems. 3M formerly manufactured PFAS at its Cottage Grove facility, which caused the east metro contamination. Now the chemicals are threatening drinking water for Minnesotans across the state.

“This is an issue everywhere,” says Matt Simcik, a University of Minnesota Environmental Health Science professor who has studied PFAS for nearly 20 years. He explains that contamination is widespread because landfills throughout the state can also leak the chemicals.

When we throw away PFAS-coated products like raincoats and upholstery, the compounds leach into the water that passes through the landfill. Operators either pump this water (called landfill leachate) to a settling pond or truck it to a wastewater treatment facility. Neither option effectively filters PFAS before discharging the contaminated leachate into the environment. Plants absorb some of the released PFAS, but the rest can percolate into groundwater. With the help of a MnDRIVE Environment seed grant, Simcik and his colleague William Arnold in the Department of Civil Engineering, are developing a solution to prevent the release of landfill PFAS.

Known as forever chemicals, PFAS can persist indefinitely in the environment. We don’t have an effective way to break them down, so Simcik plans to trap the compounds instead. He and Arnold previously developed a groundwater treatment technology that uses a coagulant or clumping agent. These big molecules bind to PFAS to make the chemicals stick together and become entangled in the soil — where they can’t travel to our faucets. While it has shown great promise in the laboratory, they are now field testing this method. Depositing the coagulant within a landfill could immobilize the chemicals in layers of waste even as the leachate flows through the site. Simcik’s plan would effectively turn landfills into PFAS storage containers, and prevent contamination from spreading further in the environment.

While this sounds promising, applying the groundwater technique to landfills is more complicated than simply identifying the best location to bury the coagulant. Groundwater is relatively clean, but landfill leachate can pick up contaminants other than PFAS as it passes through layers of waste, which reduces the coagulant’s effectiveness. Before testing the treatment method in a landfill, the MnDRIVE project will investigate how to maintain performance even as the leachate composition varies.

Simcik must also confirm that the treatment is long-lasting. If the chemicals can leak out of their trap, the coagulation method would just delay the problem rather than solve it. The lab will monitor the longevity of the coagulants, but Simcik anticipates the solution will be long term.
Forever chemicals require a lasting solution because they can endure many years in the environment. 3M phased out production of the two most prevalent types of PFAS (called PFOS and PFOA) in the early 2000s after they were detected in animal bloodstreams worldwide. Over a decade later, the chemicals still linger in the environment near the 3M facility. After 3M phased out PFOS and PFOA, other manufacturers introduced new PFAS chemicals as replacements without proof they were any less toxic.

Ongoing research on the substitute PFAS compounds now points to similar health hazards as the originals, so companies may someday end up replacing these “replacement” chemicals. As this toxic cycle repeats itself, Simcik hopes to at least keep PFAS, both old and new, locked away in landfills and out of our bloodstreams. “Hopefully, we can prevent future contamination. That’s our goal,” he says.

Caroline Frischmon is a writing intern in the Science Communications Lab, majoring in Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. She can be reached at frisc109@umn.edu

The Plant Microbe Match

The Plant Microbe Match

University of Minnesota researchers pair plants with microbes to remove arsenic from contaminated soils

by MaiLei Meyers

The contamination of soil with heavy metals like arsenic is a lasting legacy of the industrial age. In fact, the World Health Organization has identified arsenic as one of 10 chemicals of major concern. Minnesota, like other industrial states, had its fair share of arsenic-contaminated land, including the South Minneapolis Contamination Superfund and Perham Arsenic Superfund sites. Cleanup efforts traditionally involve the removal of contaminated soil and its long-term storage in a designated landfill. University of Minnesota scientists Michael Sadowsky and Cara Santelli are working on a sustainable alternative using hyperaccumulator plants that remove toxic metals from soil and incorporate them into plant tissue.  

“You can harvest and burn plants to collect the metal from their contents. In environmental clean-up, it’s called phytoremediation,” explains Michael Sadowsky, Director of the University of Minnesota’s BioTechnology Institute and an expert on plant-microbe interactions. Santelli, his partner on the project, is a geomicrobiologist in the Department of Earth Sciences. Together, they plan to augment the natural uptake of toxic metal using a class of soil microbe called rhizobacteria, which form symbiotic relationships with plants.

The research began in the greenhouse with a study of two plants capable of accumulating metals at a different rate. Using soil from EPA Superfund sites, the labs will measure the amount of metal absorbed by the plants when paired with microbes capable of immobilizing toxic metals in the soil or making them more accessible for natural uptake.

With that knowledge in hand, Santelli and Sadowsky will move on to local contaminated sites and test their findings in the field.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Agriculture granted access to Superfund sites during the pilot project funded with a seed grant from the MnDRIVE Environment initiative. The UMN team has partnered with Geosyntec, a national consulting firm with expertise in environmental engineering and the cleanup of contaminated metals. Geosyntec will assist in scaling successful field trials.

 Seed Grant Funding

Projects like Sadowsky’s current phytoremediation research could help increase visibility for seed funding programs like MnDrive.  “Without seed funding, the ability to generate foundational data for federal funding is limited,” says Sadowsky, who also serves as Co-Director of MnDRIVE’s bioremediation initiative.

In addition to seed funding, MnDRIVE promotes collaboration with local industry and government agencies. “We’re providing research that can help drive Minnesota’s economy and protect its environmental legacy. Since its inception five years ago, MnDRIVE has played a crucial role in developing new technologies and promoting collaboration between research institutions, industry, and government.”

MaiLei Meyers is a double major in Film and Journalism with an emphasis in Strategic Communications and Public Relations at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts and an intern in the BioTechnology Institute’s Science Communications Training Program.

Engineering a self-cleaning environment

Engineering a self-cleaning environment

UMN researchers create self-cleaning Biohubs to mitigate the impact of pollutants in Minnesota’s waterways

by Lauren Holly

Minnesota’s Iron Range is dotted with active and abandoned mining sites. Left untreated, runoff from these sites can flow into the environment and release heavy metals and organic pollutants, ultimately endangering wildlife and threatening human health.

But what if we could engineer the environment to clean itself? With support from the MnDRIVE Environment initiative, researchers in the BioTechnology Institute’s Schmidt-Dannert lab are developing Biohubs using genetically engineered proteins capable of breaking down heavy metals and removing toxins from mine drainage and other industrial sites.

Biohubs take advantage of a protein’s natural tendency to self-assemble into stable shell-like structures. Their porous surface converts harmful metals and organic pollutants into non-toxic components.

Based on similar structures found in nature, the lab’s model Biohub converts toxic mercury compounds into a form that can be released safely in the environment. The process relies on modified proteins that bind toxins while enzymes, small proteins capable of catalyzing biochemical reactions, convert mercury to its inert elemental form. The system is “self-cleaning” because the enzymes remain active inside the Biohub until it encounters the next metal, and restarts the process.

On-site, the Biohubs are placed in glass or metal columns that act as a filtration system; contaminated water enters through one end of the column and exits at the opposite end of the column free of toxins.

Using enzymes to clean the environment has advantages. They are versatile and leave no toxic residue, but enzymes found in nature are not always stable, and Schmidt-Dannert’s team needed a way to protect and stabilize the proteins. Enter Minnepura Technologies; a biotech startup co-founded by University of Minnesota Professors Alptekin Aksan and Lawrence Wackett. Minnepura specializes in the development of biocomposite materials designed to encapsulate and protect proteins. Minnepura and will encase the Biohubs in an easily adaptable, light-weight silica that supports the structure over time.

“Initial studies will focus on remediation of heavy metals from mine drainage, but the system could also be applied to clean up of pesticide-contaminated soil or water near agricultural land,” explained Maureen Quin, a lead researcher on the project.

Schmidt-Dannert believes engineered proteins hold considerable potential as a platform technology for sustainable bioremediation. “If we can get this to work with organic compounds, this solution could be very versatile and able to convert a variety of different pollutants.” In states like Minnesota trying to balance the competing demands of industry and environmental stewardship, Biohubs may help the environment clean itself.


Lauren Holly is an intern in the BioTechnology Institute’s Science Communications Training Program.