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Research Eyes Clean Fuels From Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant

A municipal wastewater treatment plant in San Francisco's East Bay suburbs has been tapped to pursue a possible pilot test of a new technology aimed at producing various transportation fuels ranging from gasoline to renewable natural gas (RNG) using wastewater solids. A similar project is being pursued in Vancouver, British Columbia, on a shorter, two-year time table.

A western-based consortium led by the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF) was selected recently by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to begin the $2 million, two-year first phase of design and planning for a pilot plant "to produce clean hydrocarbon fuels" at a wastewater treatment plant operated by the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, near Oakland, CA.

If the first phase works out, the consortium will have the opportunity for another $15 million in DOE funding to build the pilot facility. It is estimated it will take four years before the test plant is operating, an Alexandria, VA-based WE&RF spokesperson told NGIon Friday.

Sempra Energy's Los Angeles-based Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) and Texas-based Tesoro Corp. are part of the consortium that is applying technology from DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Called "hydrothermal processing," the technology that is being tested converts waste solids into biocrude oil and methane gas in less than an hour. The biocrude replaces fossil oil, producing green fuels with nearly zero net new carbon emissions, according to the WE&RF spokesperson. The methane gas, or RNG, can be used in the same way as fossil fuel-derived natural gas.

"Hydrothermal processing is a thermochemical process where water is used as the medium for breaking down organic matter into relatively simpler chemicals at elevated temperatures and pressures," according to the charitable research foundation's website.

"Biocrude oil produced in the system will be refined in an existing refinery, while the methane gas will be sold for transport in the natural gas pipeline system. If fully implemented in wastewater treatment operations across the United States, the technology could produce more than two billion gallons of gasoline equivalent fuel annually."

An additional byproduct of the process also is fertilizer.

"We are very proud that our consortium was selected [by DOE]," said Melissa Meeker, WE&RF CEO. Meeker said the consortium already has demonstrated that they have the ability to convert wastewater solids into renewable hydrocarbon fuels using existing wastewater infrastructure. They claim this process replaces fossil fuels and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

If the pilot plant proves successful, it could "transform wastewater treatment while contributing a substantial amount of clean biofuel," the spokesperson said.

Genifuel Corp. with technology from the DOE's national laboratory make up the consortium, along with Merrick & Company, Metro Vancouver (BC), MicroBio Engineering, Brown and Caldwell, SoCalGas, Tesoro and more than a dozen utility partners.

Additional project information is available, plus related research, on the WE&RF website. The foundation represents many of the 16,000 wastewater systems operating in the United States.

Genifuel completed a bench test of the hydrothermal processing technology last year. The report is on the WE&RF website as well as information on the proposed pilot test in Canada with Metro Vancouver.

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