Biosolids Solves the Climate Crisis

Biosolids Solves the Climate Crisis

Recent weeks have been a whiplash. Against the shocking images of Hurricane Michael’s damage to Mexico Beach is the release of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change giving humanity barely more than a decade to mend its fossil-fuel dependent ways. Media commentary adds to the whiplash, when a prestigious, proudly conservative, journal National Review, gives space to commentator Jonathan Tobin’s glib assertion “The U.N.’s latest doomsaying comes off as hyperbole, not science.” In my not-so-humble opinion, Tobin must have confined his “background” on this topic to the IPCC report’s 3 page “headline statement,” rather than to the 1,136 pages of report authored by 91 scientists. Rush Limbaugh predictably sounded the alarm that Hurricane Michael would be used by liberals to “advance the whole politics-of-climate change agenda and everything,” and equally predictably Vox provide a platform to Mary Anaise Heglar (“How to deal with despair over climate change”), pointing out that the IPCC report revealed “a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global climate emissions. These people are locking you and everything you love into a tomb… We can’t pretend this isn’t happening anymore. … We are the adults in this room.”  

Vox’s article, despite its breathlessness, usefully pointed to “10 ways to accelerate progress against climate change. “  The ten ways are:  price carbon emissions; subsidize clean energy, and end subsidies for dirty energy; electrify everything and get more efficient; Invest in innovation; require “zero deforestation” supply chains; discourage meat and dairy consumption, encourage plant-based diets; and, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  I started to labor on teasing apart these topics into meaningful lessons for us, the biosolids industry, on how we might be a solution to the climate crisis.  

Before I had gotten very far, I heard from Vance. Vance, like me, is a Prius-owning, a cappella singer, but, unlike me, he is an activist vegan. Vance had fun calling me out: “Bill, there is one way that you, personally, can accelerate progress; you can, at this very moment,give up all meat, dairy and eggs, and thereby stop the slaughter of sentient beings, the pollution by manure of our rivers, and the increase of methane from cow farts. Pledge yourself to veganism right now! or at least buy a ticket to my next event on November 2.”

Oh man! I hate being called out. I was holding a handful of Doritos during our rehearsal “afterglow.” What?!!  I learned that vegans won’t eat Doritos because whey is used in its manufacture?!” How absurd to call veganism a pathway to climate salvation?! But there again I am sure my gut microbes scream in pain when doused with Doritos.

Well, is it any less absurd to argue that biosolids can be a meaningful way to respond to the IPCC 1.5C report? I believe it is NOT absurd.

Biosolids digestion produces biogas, which supplants fossil fuels. Biogas can be fuel for co-generation at WRRFs, which works toward energy resilience and neutrality.  Hundreds of articles have focused on this source of decentralized electricity. We have companies set up to do just this: Anaergia and Energy Services Group are two with projects in the Mid Atlantic.  Biogas can also be compressed as a vehicle fuel: Unison Solutions uses its BioCNG system to create a “green fuel.” If a WRRF takes in high strength organic liquids into its digesters, the prospect of “ Energy positive wastewater treatment and sludge management” is plausible.

Biosolids can be thermally “depolymerized” under high temperature and pressure to produce gases, bio-oils or charcoal. Aries Clean Energy and SÜLZLE KOPF produce syngas. TerraNova Energy purports to make a coal substitute out of sludges using hydrothermal carbonization. Several West Coast agencies are supporting pilot operations by Genifuel of hydrothermal liquefaction to produce liquid biocrude. Another byproduct of non-burning thermal processes is biochar, which can have some beneficial soil properties. Biochar can be used for carbon sequestration.

But you don’t need to go as far as biochar to have carbon sequestration.  Biosolids of the class B sort is a sufficiently stable carbon that it adds to soil carbon more than other amendments. Also, when applied to low carbon soils, the carbon added is fixed and builds soil fertility; the benefits are large and verifiable. MABA friend Sally Brown wrote on this subject in her BioCycle magazine article  Building Carbon Credits With Biosolids Recycling

Someday (though increasingly that “some” is a far off day), carbon sequestration may have real monetary value. The New U.N. Climate Report Says Put a High Price on Carbon suggests you will be paid for the added benefit that biosolids is a perfect “low-carbon” fertilizer for agriculture and for the decreased Greenhouse Gas footprint of farming. Just imagine the solutions to biosolids management that might be possible if carbon (as CO2) is priced at $100 per ton.

I believe that in land restoration biosolids has its “highest and best” use, with its carbon and nutrients deployed to revitalize landscapes for production of cellulosic biomass crops.   

Biomass can be used for bioenergy.  In Experimental biomass harvest a step toward sustainable, biofuels-powered future, the authors write “We estimate that we can harvest 20 to 30 units of energy per unit of fossil energy invested in producing the crop, leading to fuel with a very low carbon footprint,… "The fact that this biomass can be converted to liquid fuel is one of the main advantages of shrub willow and other biomass crops. Low carbon liquid fuels are especially important for long distance transportation, shipping and aviation, where electric vehicles are not practical."

Cellulosic biomass may have uses beyond energy.  New technologies are converting biomass into biopolymers, replacing fossil sources of these chemicals. The products are biodegradable and may be less harmful when discharged to the environment. This case was well presented in: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Interrelation of Urban and Forest Sectors in Reclaiming One Hectare of Land in the Pacific Northwest.

Can you imagine a day when bioenergy crops replace livestock feed as the principal crop in the Mid Atlantic?

The IPCC report also pointed to the opportunity of algae production as an offset to fossil fuel. I am particularly intrigued by the opportunity to combine algal systems with wastewater. Clearas is a technology that now has reference facilities showing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus removal from effluent, while producing a new kind of “biosolids,” this one an algal biomass. Clearas has an “off-take” agreement for the beneficial use in bioproducts for high value personal care products.  Greater Chicago WRD is working on a similar algae system -- a “revolving algal biofilm, consisting of disks rotating in nutrient rich wastewater on which  from algae grows. It will use ceramic membranes to concentrate the algae for extraction of high value chemicals, in particular biopolymers to replace fossil-carbon based polymers.

If you chose technology sufficiently sophisticated as to produce algae, you might also be interested in extraction of biopolymers and proteins produced during fermentation. In one sense, WRRFs with anaerobic digester are already engaged in fermentation, as it is a part of the path to methane production. But if interrupted, anaerobic systems can stop at a stage of fermentation that yields chemical components of higher value than methane. These are PHAs, or Polyhydoxyalkanoates, particularly of the butyrate form (see Polyhydroxyalkanoates: An Overview). PHB can be used as inputs to production of bioplastic (“green plastic”), which can be used to manufacture plastic bottles.  The science of biomass conversion to biopolymers is speeding along. The wastewater industry (PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) production potential of activated sludge treating wastewater) can look to catch the coattails and be part of the future of biodegradable bioplastics.

Proteins are another potential off-take of biosolids fermentation. Protein synthesis is another emerging technology area of vast interest in the fight against climate change, and a primary ingredient, ammonia, is a compound plentiful in wastewater. Researchers have already begun exploring means of producing proteins from wastewater (Can direct conversion of used nitrogen to new feed and protein help feed the world?). Once produced, proteins can be formulated into feed for animals and humans, even to the extent of manufacturing meat.

The replacement of livestock agriculture with plant-based meat substitutes was put forward by the IPCC report as a key action. Consider the possibility of Huge reduction in meat-eating ‘essential’ to avoid climate breakdown.  An emerging industry in manufacture meats is unfolding, gently put forward by the Good Food Institute in its Plant-Based Meat Mind Maps, and which is underscored by rave reviews for Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger. But, for much of the world, meat consumption is a primary signal of reduced impoverishment (Global Meat Production and Consumption Continue to Rise), albeit a signal with serious environmental and human health consequences.

Just as the world may not be ready for manufactured meats, the world is not likely to respond to challenges put forth by the IPCC report.  Nobel prize-winning economist (2018), William Nordhaus, with a 40-year-long career in carbon taxation research, admitted that the likely scenario is a terrible overshoot of the global temperature goals, resulting in famine, extreme heat and massive flooding (see After Nobel in Economics, William Nordhaus Talks About Who’s Getting His Pollution-Tax Ideas Right). This overshoot may be necessary to whiplash humanity into taking the kind of actions that will finally compel nations, including and especially the U.S, to change course.  

The biosolids industry could be a leader in this global course correction, and we need not wait to be whiplashed into doing so. We could deploy biosolids today to produce biofuels, biopolymers, and even proteins in place of fossil carbon. I thought I was being comical when in my 1998 paper, “Horror, Humor and Heroes,” I led off with a World Weekly News story proclaiming: “POTTY PATTIES! Hamburgers made from raw sewage are a big hit in Japan.” I had discovered back then that the story had derived from a kernel of truth -- Japanese researchers had experimented with protein production from biosolids, and had manufactured sausages.  Here I am, in 2018, whiplashed by the realization that “potty patties” may be yet proved one way that biosolids solves the climate crisis.

Boundary Pushing Biosolids Research

I was literally stopped in my (running) tracks when Eric Haseltine in a TED Radio Hour podcast interview (Eric Haseltine: Can The Past Guide Us To Future Scientific Breakthroughs?) asserted that leaps forward in science come from those pre-eminent scientists who push the boundaries of established scientific knowledge. This struck a chord because I had picked up on some recent science stories about  “boundary pushing” and realized I was quite vague in our own field of “biosolids science” just who is doing such “boundary pushing."

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Presentations from the W3170 Meeting in Chicago

We are facing evidence of nitrogen and phosphorus releases, risks from persistent pollutants, the ongoing need to mitigate odor nuisances, the concern for antibiotic resistance gene migration, and the opportunity to restore soil health, to name a few big ones.  Our industry’s integrity and reputation are at risk if we fail to support the level of scholarship that can apply current tools, knowledge and scientific skills to these topics and to questions reasonably posed by our customers and regulators. I say, the time has come for us to re-invest in science. If you do, prepare yourself for the many Surprises of Biosolids Science.

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Reducing Cyanobacteria Stimulation with Appropriate Biosolids Treatment, Soil Quality Assessments and Tillage Equipment

We confront a peculiar predicament. Some 14 billion years now into our history, humans still need to learn how to properly manage their own biosolids. We need to choose the right treatment technologies, the right soils, and the right tillage equipment if we are to avoid discharges of nutrients that stimulate cyanobacteria to produce biotoxins deadly to fish, cattle and maybe even humans.

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Dewatering Performance of Bio-P Plants.

We are seeing real team spirit in our wastewater community for solving the challenge to dewatering performance of Bio-P plants. Though it will certainly not yield a million-person street parade, like the Eagle's Super Bowl celebration in Philadelphia, someday we will rightfully celebrate a SOLID BIOSOLIDS PERFORMANCE!

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Biosolids Top Soil Getting our Feet on the Ground

Top soil manufactured with biosolids is where we set our sights. Let's go back to those soil blends that Terry Logan and Billie Lindsay were designing twenty years ago, and let's jump onto those blends that Greg Evanylo has been testing over the past two years through his WE&RF High Quality Biosolids research. That is where biosolids lends its best features, particularly its phosphorus, where biosolids offers the most value, and where biosolids is “tops.” Let’s focus our biosolids programs on the manufacture of a Top Sustainable Top Soil.

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A Gamer's Fantacy of Biosolids Master Planning

We can dream big about how we build the biosolids infrastructure of our future cities, and to do so against shifting technology, uncertain finance, changing regulation, and political resistance. But our dreams may remain fantasies without the kind of support from our customers and from environmental activists who ought to be our allies, not opponents, needed to achieve clean water and better soils. To get to that wonderful place, we may need to dive into unfamiliar popular culture of gaming and movie making to draw in political and financial support.   

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Biosolids Place in Addressing Antibiotic Resistant Genes and Concerns over Global Dystopia

The state-of-knowledge on wastewater and land treatment effects on ARG transmission is still early. Research today suggests that enhancement of treatment plant and land application practices can provide sound and effective barriers. If you make biosolids products that measure very low in indicator organisms and that attract no flies, you are likely doing well already. So, while climate change may continue to wreak havoc with rising sea levels, sulfide gases, unlivable heat, and crop failures, we can nevertheless be soundly managing our corner of the world. A global dystopia may inevitably descend, but at least we will be maintaining a Biosolids Utopia. 

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Biosolids spot in the Journal of Environmental Quality "Top Two" Papers of 2016

The Journal of Environmental Quality announced its "top two," 2016 JEQ Best Paper Award recipients. The TOP TWO issues can be helped solved by Biosolids. It can do so in its Class B, low cost form, but for disjointed programs, policies and priorities that interfere with biosolids use in P deficient areas. 

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Remarkable Biosolids

In our biosolids world, very few of us have the goal for our biosolids to be “remarkable,” because the remarks are usually of the wrong kinds, and they go viral for the wrong reasons.  That is what we need to change. We need to tell our “remarkable” stories, and we need positive viral results.

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