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Lab-scale Anaerobic Digester

KNOXVILLE — A team of researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will be showcasing technology they developed to improve the quality of life for rural residents on April 24-25 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The demonstration is for the National Sustainable Design Expo, which brings together professional scientists, engineers and business leaders to view innovations designed to advance economic growth while reducing environmental impact. The researchers’ work is also a contender in the Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) award competition, which is part of the expo and offers winnings up to $75,000.

Qiang He, a civil and environmental engineering assistant professor, Shawn Hawkins, a biosystems engineering and soil sciences assistant professor, and Chris Cox, a civil and environmental engineering professor, will be demonstrating their solution to environmental hazards caused by animal agriculture waste.

He, the project’s principal investigator, notes that animal agriculture produces 13 trillion pounds of waste every year in the U.S., which represents more than 300 times more waste than the amount of domestic wastewater processed in U.S. municipal wastewater treatment plants.

“The large amount of animal waste from farms with livestock and dairy production operations poses one of America’s most serious pollution problems because the natural decomposition of livestock manures releases large quantities of pathogens, excess nutrients, organic matter, solids, methane, ammonia and odorants to the environment,” He said, adding that this can contaminate surface and ground water and contribute to global climate change.

To mitigate this problem, the researchers have designed technology that would reduce waste while producing a source for energy.

Called “anaerobic co-digestion,” the waste treatment technology uses microorganisms that do not need oxygen to break down the waste, thus emitting biogas instead of environmentally harmful carbon dioxide. Biogas is a renewable source of green energy that can combusted for heating and cooling, generation of electricity and potentially converted in liquid transportation fuel.

He said this technology provides a solution to sustainable development in rural communities with the ability to reduce environmental pollution and produce green energy.

“The implementation of the anaerobic co-digestion design concept will contribute to the improvement of quality of life for residents through the reduction of environmental pollutants,” He said. “And due to the fact that green energy is highly desirable, electricity generated from biogas could greatly improve the economics of livestock operation, while at the same time cutting greenhouse gas emission.”

The researchers plan to build pilot-scale anaerobic digesters to be used as educational tools in local communities. They also are in the process of garnering support to build a full-scale anaerobic digester at a local dairy farm. The goal is to implement their technology in larger scales in communities across the U.S. Winnings from the EPA’s P3 Award competition would help them do this.

Now in its sixth year, the competition consists of two phases. The first phase began at the start of the academic year when the researchers received $10,000 grants to do their projects. In this second phase, a panel of judges from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will evaluate the 42 teams’ project reports and National Sustainable Design Expo exhibits. Based on the judges’ scores, the AAAS will make recommendations to the EPA about which teams should receive the EPA’s P3 Awards and the opportunity for more funding.

Up to $75,000 is given to the best student designs to be used to further the projects, implement them in the field and move them to the marketplace.

The UT Knoxville researchers are hopeful their project will win.

“This will be an important contribution to sustainable development of not only our local communities, but also communities throughout the country and around the globe,” He said.

Undergraduate civil and environmental engineering students Reese Deblois, David Jacobs, Caroline Sneed and Tim Stephens; graduate students Estaban Zamudio-Canas, Yan Zhang and Zhenwei Zhu; and Farragut High School students Edward Ko, Michael Hsueh and Julia Hsu also are contributing to the project.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Holmes (865-974-5460, wholmes7@utk.edu)