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EPA recognizes bioengineering capstone team’s sustainability project

Team

Jeremy Davis, Sami Tellatin, Austin Davis and Amanda Prescott (from left) observe a lab assistant’s work on an anaerobic digestion system in Agriculture Systems Management Professor David Brune’s lab. The quartet was selected as one of 42 $15,000 Phase I grant recipients by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) grant competition and is studying mixing swine manure with food waste as a practical way of creating energy and recovering nutrients.

Capstone projects are a part of every University of Missouri senior’s life. But not every capstone project earns recognition and funding from a federal agency.

Bioengineering seniors Austin Davis, Jeremy Davis, Amanda Prescott and Sami Tellatin, under the tutelage of Assistant Research Professor Christine Costello, were selected as one of 42 $15,000 Phase I grant recipients by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) grant competition. The team’s project, entitled “Feasibility and Life Cycle Assessment of Anaerobic Co-Digestion of Campus Food Waste and Swine Manure,” will study mixing swine manure with food waste as a practical way of creating energy and recovering nutrients.

Brune

The team took a look at the anaerobic digestion system in Agriculture Systems Management Professor David Brune’s lab to get ideas for how to construct their own.

The P3 program’s goal is to “highlight the use of scientific principles in creating innovative projects focused on sustainability,” according to its website. Based on the success of their developed design at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., in April, they may be eligible for a $75,000 Phase II grant.

The team’s first goal is to design an anaerobic digestion system that works toward its stated goal and within the constraints imposed by the feedstock, in this case food waste. Anaerobic digestion is a process through which microorganisms deconstruct biodegradable products without the use of oxygen. It’s typically used to treat biodegradable waste and sewage sludge and can reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills while recovering energy and nutrients.

“Primarily, we’re focusing on food waste as our first goal,” Prescott said. “We’re taking food waste from the dining hall and through a series of guided chemical reactions carried out by different bacteria, turning that into methane gas to be turned into electricity.”

Fully functional, high-capacity systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so much of the money will go toward things such as travel and research costs. The team plans to build bench-scale digesters to showcase the process at the National Sustainable Design Expo.

“The design is around the amount of food waste that we observed in the collection study from the four major dining halls,” Costello said. “They’re designing for that waste stream, and they’re incorporating swine manure to the extent that it’s necessary for the microbes to be happy [to break down the material], to make sure the carbon-nitrogen ratios balance out and all that kind of stuff.

“We’ve been having some fun conversations about if that’s [design for the full food waste stream is] too expensive, is there a smaller system that would make sense?” Costello said. “Could the wastewater treatment facility take on more because they have anaerobic digestion there already? There’s less installed capacity [to handle food waste] because it’s variable, making it harder to design and operate a system.”

Sustainable engineering and environmental engineering are two big components of Costello’s research, including a similar project she’s currently working on with Assistant Professor Ronald McGarvey of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering in which they’re studying the composition of and cost of disposal for the university’s food waste.

Costello figured there were more ways than just composting to treat organic and food waste. After seeing the work of David Brune, professor of agricultural systems management, and Teng Teeh Lim, assistant extension professor of agricultural systems management, on anaerobic digestion systems, she had an idea.

“Both have anaerobic digestion system projects, so I thought, ‘Oh, maybe we can try treating food waste with anaerobic digestion,’ so I wrote the proposal. And it got funded, so now we have to do it,” she said with a laugh. “The EPA call was specifically for student involvement, so I thought it would be a good project, because they’re all bioengineering students, so they know a lot about biological processes.”

The quartet joined up after a pitch from Costello to their agricultural systems design capstone class. The potential environmental applications and effects were a big pull to students already of a mind to create a more sustainable world.

“I’m very interested in renewable energy sources, and the fact that this is a possibility for creating a renewable natural gas was something that was pretty exciting to me,” Jeremy Davis said.

“I was really interested in learning about greenhouse gases and nutrient decomposition, and so this seemed like a pretty perfect fit,” Austin Davis said.

It’s all part of a larger global effort to determine ways to recover as much energy and nutrients possible from food and other organic waste streams. For a group of environmentally conscious students, recognition from the EPA is a big step, one they hope leads to bigger national efforts in waste reduction in the future.

“I think it’s really awesome and empowering, because I think about these things a lot and like to talk about them,” Tellatin said. “But to have a governmental agency endorse this and want to explore this is really important, because I think we need to do a lot of work as far as energy and waste reduction go in the United States.”