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To Deal With Breweries' Wastewater, This Researcher Wants to Turn it Into Fuel

Robbie Feinberg

As the craft beer market gets larger, breweries in Michigan and across the country are growing and expanding their production lines. But that growth comes at a cost. More beer equals more wastewater, and wastewater costs a lot of money to get treated. However, in Michigan, one local brewery has found its own solution.  And one researcher is studying how algae could potentially transform this wastewater into fertilizer, medicine or even fuel.

When Walker Modic was hired as the sustainability specialist for Bell’s Brewery in Comstock a few years ago, he was immediately confronted with a big problem. Bell’s churns out a lot of wastewater – at least 30 million gallons every year. And this wastewater isn’t like the stuff going down your shower drain.

This water is loaded with chemicals and nutrients from hops, alcohols and sugars. The fees from sending that to the Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant made costs skyrocket.

"So finding a way to manage the quantities that we were sending down the pipe was really the challenge," Modic says. "Because it's certainly, I think we were third or fourth in the area in terms of loaded volume to the city. So we were a big user."

So how do you fix such a huge problem? Modic leads me into his solution -- a custom-built water treatment facility he calls "The Cube."

“This is basically the sound of a lot of pumps, in service of microbes,” Modic shouts over the facility's booming thump-thump-ing.

This treatment plant pumps in wastewater through pipes, then squeezes out the big solids, and treats the rest with an ecosystem of tiny bugs. Their job is to eat the chemicals from the water’s sugars and alcohols. 

Credit Robbie Feinberg
Nalley pulls out the results of his experiments on brewery wastewater.

Modic says by the end of the process, the water is clean enough so the city will take it without charging enormous cleaning fees. He says it’s been a lot of trial-and-error so far, but he’s finally feeling a little more comfortable with the new system.

"I feel like I have to knock on wood even saying it out loud!" Modic laughs. "We'll see! Come back in two weeks and I might have a different story, but we’re getting our arms around it, for sure."

In large craft breweries, water treatment plants have become standard. Several breweries along the California coast have installed similar systems. Despite construction costs in the millions, these breweries think they’re worth it.

But head over to the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, and one researcher is trying to take things a step further: to use algae to make this wastewater even cleaner.

Inside the station, Michigan State University graduate student Jakob Nalley pulls out a large tub of really green, really smelly water from  a refrigerator. The green stuff is algae.

“Yeah, take a whiff!” Nalley motions to me.

I stick my face inside. The smell is rancid.

"Yeah, not great," Nalley concurs. "It’s pretty rough. This has been just incubating in here since June."

Despite the smell, Nalley says this algae-filled water is important. Nalley studies how to make different species work together and grow in different environments.

Algae is valuable, he says. You can potentially sell it as medicine, fertilizer or fuel. But growing algae requires a lot of chemicals, like nitrogen and phosphorus. Nalley realized that those were the exact same chemicals in the wastewater from breweries.

"The nitrogen and phosphorus are perfect for us, and that's why brewery wastewater is perfect for algal cultivation," he explains.

So this summer, Nalley tested his theory. He took samples of wastewater from a local brewery. The water had already been treated in a few ways, but it was still murky and full of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Over a few months, Nalley performed a series of tests on the water, combining it with different species of algae to see what would happen.

And the results?

"It was so dense in algae that if this was your fish tank, your fish would die. Like it's that heavy," he says. "This stuff was growing at immense levels. It was crazy."

All that algae is a very good thing. It confirmed Nalley's first hypothesis. It means that – in a lab, at least -- brewery wastewater is a good environment to help algae grow. 

But Nalley is more excited about what happened when he removed the algae from the wastewater. When he did that, the water was clean. Not quite drinkable, but clean enough to be recycled back into a brewery to wash its equipment and floors.

As for the algae? Nalley has big dreams there. He's particularly interested in using algae as a biofuel to power cars or trucks.

"And if we could mass-cultivate this (algae), it'd be a really, really easy alternative to start to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels," he explains. "By no means will it be one day we'll start growing algae and all the sudden the fossil fuels disappear. But it could be a stepping stone into this alternative energy economy."

However, those in the algae industry say Nalley’s dreams are still a ways away. Only now are companies launching pilot wastewater projects with algae.

One of those companies is Michigan-based Algal Scientific. Last year, it started treating the water at a major brewery’s malting plant in the Pacific Northwest, then used the finished product as a fertilizer.

Algal Scientific’s process is different from Nalley’s. They use more than just algae to treat wastewater, and they treat really murky water, with a lot more chemicals inside of it. Algal Scientific CEO Geoff Horst says he was excited to hear about Nalley’s work. But he says there are a lot more hurdles to overcome before algae can be used to take on thousands of gallons of wastewater.

Horst says making the process profitable is still a big question, and it will likely take a lot of years and a lot more research before we know if it can be done on a large scale.

"But there's a high cost to doing this, and if it's millions and millions of dollars for each plant, they might do it once but not for 50 of their breweries," Horst says. "At least that's my impression. You only need to have one solar panel on a Home Depot to show you're green. But that hundredth one isn't going to give you an increased PR perspective."

Plus, Horst says, researchers need to find a way for algae to survive the cold, Michigan winters.

But Walker Modic, from Bell’s, says he’s excited that there simply is research happening. Water is a public good, he says, and preserving it isn’t just important for breweries, but for everyone.

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