Are you passionate about climate change? This article will interest you. Although the words ‘converting waste’ and ‘bioenergy’ may seem rather complex, this local project aims to conserve the earth’s resources, which is a concept we are already familiar with.
Piet Lens is an established Professor of New Energy Technologies and he and his team are currently working on a Galway-based project using microbes to discover new ways to convert organic and inorganic waste into bioenergy.
Professor Lens regarded the project as an “opportunity to work on a topic that is now very topical”. In a world of so much waste, he wanted “to see to what extent the planet can be conserved”.
Research has traditionally focussed on organic waste such as vegetables. Inorganic waste, including metal-based products and some electronics, has been more neglected.
However, Professor Lens’ group works with both despite the increased complexity.
‘Green Mining’ is an example of the work being done as part of the project. One of the environmental issues associated with mines are “toxic metals” from rocks, according to Professor Lens.
These metals, such as zinc and copper, affect water systems around mines. The “toxic metals” are now caught through biorefining and bioprocess engineering as part of the project.
Separately, the team noticed a significant amount of seaweed on Irish coastlines. The observation prompted Professor Lens and his peers to ask “can we convert [the seaweed] into something useful; something that can create a benefit?”
Through organic biorefinery, the team has been able to extract sugars from seaweed that are used in coffee and for some medical purposes.
The work does not stop there. Professor Lens’ initiative aims to maximise the utility of waste.
Seaweed is also processed via anaerobic digestion to create the sustainable fuel biomethane, which can otherwise be quite expensive to produce.
Additionally, the project is looking at combining seaweed with green mining by using inorganic refinery to extract metals within.
“Very often in the past, these processes were too expensive to apply,” Professor Lens noted.
He furthered that the rise in gas prices and oil prices coupled with inflation have been “a huge driver for many processes that are more environmentally friendly”.
“[S]ince the war in Ukraine,” Professor Lens emphasised, “processes that were not viable at that time, they are now commercially viable.”
Although the conditions are ripe for the project, the team still encounters difficulties. Compartmentalising “is one of the greatest challenges to overcome,” according to Professor Lens.
It is also difficult for new biobased processes to compete with established petrochemical-based models that have been optimised for over 100 years.
Professor Lens is cautious about completely departing from those existing processes though. “We want to get rid of the petroleum dependency,” he declared, “but we are putting ourselves in a metal dependency”.
Completely switching to electric cars, for instance, could simply shift our dependence from fossil fuels to batteries.
“It’s very important to make the people aware about this,” Professor Lens noted, “there is not a simple solution for the energy question.”
In any event, Professor Lens believes in trying to recycle metals rather than having to constantly extract them from the earth.
Sustainability is at the core of his project, which strives to value waste by incorporating it into a circular model.
You can learn more about the project discussed in this article by listening to Tom O’Connor’s interview with Professor Piet Lens here.