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Engineers cultivate fungus in brewery wastewater, develop biomass battery

Waste doesn’t have to be wasted. With a little innovation and a lot of engineering, waste may be used to make the world better. A team of engineers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have turned to wastewater with this in mind, raising fungus in the medium and using them to create biomass that may offer a cheaper alternative for renewable fuel cells.

“Breweries use about seven barrels of water for every barrel of beer produced,” Tyler Huggins, a graduate student in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering and lead author of the new study, said in a press release. “And they can’t just dump it into the sewer because it requires extra filtration.”

Huggins and his team took leftover water off the hands of Boulder brewers and introduced spores of a fast-growing fungus called Neurospora crassa. The fungus thrives in the sugar-rich brewery wastewater and, in that controlled environment, the researchers could cultivate the organisms to develop specific chemical and physical properties. They heated and gently shook the fungus-infused wastewater, encouraging the fungus to grow. After two days, it was filtered and baked into a chip from which the engineers extracted the carbon-based materials.

The result is one of the most efficient naturally derived lithium-ion battery electrodes to date, according to a paper re-entry published in Applied Materials & Interfaces.

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“This is a ground breaking idea of using a bottom up approach for battery materials,” Zhiyong Jason Ren, an associate professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and a co-author of the study, told Digital Trends. That means, rather than manufacturing batteries from the top down, researchers can bio-design the materials needed from the beginning.

Brewers may also benefit from this new technology. Wastewater can be expensive to dispose of and it just be flushed down the drain. It’s a whole lot easier if eager researchers come and collect the wastewater free of charge. In future research, CU Boulder will partner with Avery Brewing to explore whether the technology can be scaled up and commercialized.

“We are optimistic on the scale up potential as the system was designed modular,” Ren said. “We are working on scaled production and improve biomass and system performance.”