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.

An End in Sight For “Forever Chemicals”

An End in Sight For “Forever Chemicals”

MnDRIVE researchers Mikael Elias and Lawrence Wackett are studying Acidimicrobium in hopes of harnessing the bacteria’s PFAS-degrading power.

By Caroline Frischmon

Waterproof, nonstick and flame retardant. Products like raincoats, frying pans and firefighting foam keep us safe, clean and comfortable. Their durability stems from the presence of carbon-fluorine bonds, which are some of the strongest in organic chemistry. Unexpectedly, these great modern conveniences have also created a widespread environmental problem. Compounds with multiple carbon-fluorine bonds, called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), have accumulated for decades in the environment with no effective way to break down these “forever chemicals.” 

Exposure to PFAS through drinking water is associated with higher cholesterol, certain cancers and suppressed immune responses. Scientists and regulators have tried to address the PFAS contamination through filtering, coagulating, burning and more, but most cost-effective solutions simply concentrate the chemicals and move them away from wells, aquifers and other points of human contact. Now, there’s hope that a bacteria called Acidimicrobium sp. might hold the key to a more permanent solution. Through a MnDRIVE Environment Seed Grant, researchers Mikael Elias and Lawrence Wackett, both University of Minnesota professors in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics, will study the bacteria’s promising ability to digest PFAS.

Last year, researchers at Princeton University discovered Acidimicrobium could digest PFAS chemicals and convert them to carbon dioxide and fluoride. It’s the first identified bacteria that actually breaks the carbon-fluorine bond, but scientists are wary of calling it a solution quite yet. The microbes eat too slowly on their own to be effective at the scale needed to address PFAS contamination in the environment. To speed up the process, Elias and Wackett will first need to identify the enzymes that give Acidimicrobium its superpower.

All living things use enzymes, or biological catalysts, to accelerate chemical reactions. They are highly specific to one job, whether it’s digesting fats or sugars or assisting in DNA production. Out of all Acidimicrobium’s enzymes, scientists aren’t sure which ones are responsible for the PFAS reaction. “What we’re really going after now is to identify and characterize the actual enzymes responsible for the degradation process,” states Elias. That understanding will pave the way for improving their efficiency through genetic modification. Eventually, the team hopes to develop the enzymes as a PFAS bioremediation tool.

Wackett and Elias partnered on this project to share their varying expertise. Wackett, an enzymologist, will analyze the bacteria’s DNA sequence to identify which enzymes are likely responsible for PFAS degradation. Elias, a structural biologist, will determine how the structure of Wackett’s enzymes facilitates the reaction. 

Using 3D images to reveal the structure of the enzyme’s active site, Elias examines the arrangement of amino acids, the building blocks of enzymes. “We’re going to look at how the amino acids in the enzyme break down the PFAS molecules,” explains Elias. With that information in hand, he and Wackett will try to engineer better enzymes by manipulating the arrangement of the amino acids.

 In addition to engineering a more efficient Acidimicrobium enzyme, Wackett and Elias will search for other potential PFAS-degraders with related DNA sequences. Bacteria with similar enzymes as Acidimicrobium might digest PFAS even more efficiently, but scientists haven’t been able to test for them yet. “When we have the sequence code, we will know how to look for the enzymes and the genes in other bacteria,” says Wackett, “That’s another big advantage of having the structure and knowing those key amino acids.”

Existing PFAS technologies focus on sequestration rather than degradation. “[Containment] is useful until you have a better solution, but it’s imperfect because it has limited capacity,” Elias points out. “You’re just moving pollutants from one place to another.” The MnDRIVE seed grant provides an opportunity for a better solution. Elias and Wackett hope Acidimicrobium will help them finally eliminate these forever chemicals for good.

This research was supported by MnDRIVE Advancing Industry, Conserving Our Environment at the University of Minnesota.

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