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."

I had been listening to some recent “crazy” science news. Did you catch the item about an alternative to the Big Bang Theory, in which our 3-dimensional universe was borne of a Black Hole in a previous 4-dimensional universe (There Was No Big Bang—A Black Hole Created Our Universe, Scientists Claim)?  What??!!  Also, cosmologically speaking, did you read about Cohl Furey, a female mathematical physicist whose work with octonions (numbers whose multiplication rules are encoded in a triangular diagram called the Fano plane) has led her to believe that octonions are linked to the Standard Model of forces in the Universe? If you hadn’t heard of octonion math, then you probably don’t know anything about quaternion math.

No, well then maybe you heard one of the of the other crazy  “closer-to-home” items, as in the recent Freakanomics podcast “Power of Poop.” What excited me was the interview with Thomas Borody, a Polish-born gastroenterologist who works at the Centre for Digestive Diseases near Sydney, Australia. Working against conventional medical wisdom, this researcher demonstrated in a human patient, interviewed on the podcast,  the benefits of fecal implantation for Parkinsons Disease. He deployed the notion that the gut microbiome constitutes a “human organ,” and when he transplanted a healthy microbiome for an infected one in the Parkinsons patient, he fostered a cure for the neurological disease. This connection between the gut and the nervous system gives new meaning to the phrase "a gut feeling."

This is not just a matter of scientific curiosity, but rather the realization that a major boundary of traditional medicine has been pushed (see No Guts, No Glory: How Microbiome Research is Changing Medicine.) The pharmaceutical industry is a mighty economic force, and  Scientists are trying to harness the microbiome for healing. The execs of Fitch Therapeutics Group, trumpeting “the microbiome as a source of new enterprises and job creation, “ declared their newly-formed company a “pioneer in microbial therapies,” and proudly penned an editorial posted by the federal government’s National Center for Biotechnology Information that it was  Harnessing the microbiome for human health,

You might well be wondering what is causing disease in the microbiome of the human gut that now needs to be fixed by BIg Pharma. Well, among a wide array of possibilities is a chemical that is also “front-and-center” in today’s media: Monsanto’s Roundup (a/k/a glyphosatep)! Maybe it hurts the microbiome (Glyphosate shown to disrupt microbiome 'at safe levels', study claims ), or, maybe it does not (Glyphosate and the Gut Microbiome: Another Bad Argument Annihilated).  The jury is still out…

Speaking of juries, I perked up my ears, too, on the jury’s judgment against Monsanto, in which the carcinogenicity of glyphosate was on trial, the jury concluding with a very large award to the dying plaintiff (Jurors give $289 million to a man they say got cancer from Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller). I have conjectured in a previous TOPICS about how the science of the human health effects of glyphosate could undermine farming as we know it in the Mid Atlantic. I checked the other day, and found that the international consensus on glyphosate safety is changing, and not in Monsanto’s favor, as in Glyphosate Based Herbicides and Cancer Risk: A Post IARC Decision Review of Potential Mechanisms, Policy, and Avenues of Research. Still, for me, the real “killer” of this compound may well stem from the nearly 900  science journal articles since the start of 2017 on the effects of glyphosate on male sperm counts, as in The Effect of Glyphosate on Human Sperm Motility and Sperm DNA Fragmentation. Cancer is one thing, but sperm is something altogether different and close to home.

So, what might happen if Monsanto’s Roundup disappears? May be not much, if some other “crazy science ideas” take hold and if our reliance on field crop agriculture in support of livestock production disappears.  I was notified by the online science website, Massive Science, that any day now it will push out its new report  You Are What You Meat on artificially manufactured meats. No more livestock farms if this future takes hold. I hadn’t realized how far this concept has gone; just check Cultured Meat. One leader in this area is New Harvest, founded by Jason Matheny to research “use of cell cultures, instead of live animals, to grow meat.” His experience in India “made him recognize the need for a new way to meet a global demand for meat that is ‘exponentially growing’.”

And, don’t worry about the need to grow field corn and soybeans for dairy farmers, as man-made milk is on its way, again pushing the boundaries, and not just with almond or soy milk: Meet the startup that makes milk—without cows.

I also felt a bit glib in seeing that my horror, also noted in a previous TOPICS, at the rapid global accumulation of plastic was now being shared by the wider “crazy” science media. The recent  National Geographic article “A Whopping 91% of Plastic Isn't Recycled,” for example, draws on the 2017 Scientific American article Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.  What will happen with soil and water borne plastics decades ahead of us? I remember reading about plastic-eating wax worms (Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella), but this was followed by concern for effects of unleashed wax worms on beehives. Perhaps plastic pollution would be better handled microbiologically, as in Bacteria assimilating plastic, or by engineered enzymes (Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase).

While we have no global solutions to the plastics crisis, the  wastewater industry may be both a part of the problem and part of the solution. Our treatment plants are a conduit for plastic pollution in the environment, because, as we all suspect, treatment plant grinders send a good deal of plastic in a macerated form to our biosolids and also out the effluent pipe. In other ways we may mitigate plastic pollution. This is true as we improve screening in our headworks and ahead of our digesters. But we could go further, as one of our very own “boundary pushing” wastewater scientists, Kartik Chandran, showed in a recent journal article (Identification of Bisphenol A-Assimilating Microorganisms in Mixed Microbial Communities Using 13C-DNA Stable Isotope Probing).  The boundary pushing future might visualize our WRRFs as including processes for plastics degradation and being a  barrier to environmental releases of plastics.

Perhaps plastics could be a friend for wastewater treatment, though this is still a stretch.  A review of emerging technology in plastics disposal reveals that pyrolysis is an approach for converting plastic to fuel.  Several companies are out there with demonstration or reference facilities to pyrolyze plastic into fuel. These include: AgilyxGB Pyrolysis,GGI Energy,  Golden Renewable Energy, and Vadxx.  We have also had our industry’s own hopeful players in this arena, notably KORE Infrastructure and BioForceTech, for pyrolyzing biosolids to fuel. The pyrogas from plastic or biosolids, or for that matter any organic matter, is suited for conversion to methane or liquid fuels, replacing fossil fuels and providing a carbon accounting benefit. My own “pushing the boundary” thought was this: if society can move pyrolysis technologies to the point of distributed deployment throughout the world to manage plastics pollution, could the pyrolizers not be designed also for other problem feedstocks, say biosolids and fecal sludge?  From what I can tell in my internet survey, pyrolysis is still in the demonstration stage for feedstocks more complicated than woodchips, despite a solid decade or so of “boundary breaking” research, grant funds and investment dollars seeking to prove pyrolizers can work on plastic, municipal trash and biosolids.

An attractive part of the pyrolysis story, beyond the promise of a low-carbon and low-sulfur liquid fuel output, is the promise of biochar.  We in biosolids have been envious at the great media coverage that biochar has enjoyed compared to biosolids (unreasonably so, in my opinion). The enthusiasm for biochar comes in part to the substantial investment of companies such as Cool Planet in its CoolTerra Biochar and Engineered BioCarbon products. Biochar has enjoyed substantial science investigation (see, for example,  A comparative review of biochar and hydrochar in terms of production, physico-chemical properties and applications), and even biosolids-derived biosolids has attracted research (Biochar from Biosolids Pyrolysis: A Review) even though no agency, to my knowledge, is making such biochar.  And while CoolPlanet emphasizes soil applications of biochar, the beneficial use of biosolids-derived (and likely, too, plastic-derived) biochar seems focused on its use for capturing pollutants from water and air (Biosolids-Derived Biochar for Micropollutant Removal from Wastewater). Even so, research on biochar uses very nearly qualifies as “boundary-pushing,” since biochar production from feedstock other than wood is still negligible.

Most of the “boundary pushing” in wastewater these days is in advancing, not thermal conversion systems, but microbial systems. Indeed, the Stockholm Water Prize ceremony on 29 August is celebrating two professors who have transformed wastewater treatment through microbial systems: Delft’s Mark van Loosdrecht, for his work with anammox and with Aerobic Granulation in a Sequencing Batch Reactor; and Arizona State’s Bruce E. Rittmann,  for his focus on deriving high value products from wastewater, as in two recent publications Maximizing Microorganism-Based Resources and  Total Value of Phosphorus Recovery. The Stockholm Prize only goes to “boundary pushing” scientists, so we can take our cues here.

The future of our wastewater industry lays with the kind of boundary pushing changes that are occurring in medicine and agriculture. While most of us still understand wastewater treatment as a system of screens, tanks and blowers, treatment systems may be transforming into ones of sophisticated bioreactors, the products of which are purified waster and an array of elements and specialty chemicals.  That is a vision we see alive in the imagination of the scientists at work today at the boundary-pushing edges of wastewater science. While some of us would find it easier to imagine a Black Hole to be akin to the port of a sludge mixing tank, perhaps the universe of unimaginable energy and substances is the true Black Hole of Biosolids.