Food, water, energy: an eternal golden braid of value and sustainability

Jonathan Trent, late of the OMEGA algae projects, has authored a column on the topic of “putting existing technologies into ecosystems, to increase food productivity and profitability, while conserving water and energy and decreasing environmental impact.” He calls this UpCycle Systems, or UCS to those who adore three-letter acronyms, referring back to the concept of upcycling (vs recycling) as a reuse of discarded material ”in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.”

As Trent observes, waste byproducts are natural, almost every living thing creates a byproduct and what nature has taught us is that conservation of material is not achieved by a single system, but by one system using a waste material of someone else’s process as a feedstock for theirs. It used to be called the industrial symbiosis and it is practiced at large scale in Kalundborg, Denmark, as one example.

Trent is focused on the supply chains for energy, water and food and observes:

The astronauts living in the Space Station, like the people living in any modern city, all depend on our technical ingenuity to create accommodations, but their long-term survival depends on the supply chains, especially those that provide food, water, and energy. Food, water, and energy are critical for our individual survival, forming the foundation of our hierarchy of needs (Maslow)and the basis for our sense of community. These supply chains are taken-for-granted in many parts of the world because for a long time supply has been able to meet demand. But this raises an important question: 

How secure are our essential food, water, and energy supply chains? Population growth, urbanization, and changing lifestyles are increasing demand, while climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation are decreasing supply. This growing imbalance between supply and demand for food, water, and energy has led to some ominous speculation about the future. 

In Trent’s case, his focus is firmly on the farm, and he writes:

The UCS facilities combine livestock farming with anaerobic digesters, with freshwater or marine algae and aquaculture, with water treatment and reuse, as well as with fertilizer production–all of which are monitored and controlled by what we call augmented intelligence (AI).  Many livestock farms already convert animal manure into fertilizer by composting, and into biogas (methane) by using anaerobic digesters. In addition to biogas the UCS process takes advantage of two additional products from the digesters–digestate and CO2.  The digestate, which is itself an excellent fertilizer, is combined with CO2and dissolved in water to grow microalgae in a proprietary cultivation system we developed called OMEGA. Microalgae, which are fast growing and the most efficient plants for converting light into biomass, are rich in proteins, carbohydrates, and algae oils.  In UCS facilities the microalgae become feed supplements for both livestock and aquaculture.  The aquaculture, with its excellent feed to food conversion ratio increases the overall food production efficiency.  This efficiency is further enhanced by using the concentrated oxygen from algae, which increases aquaculture yields. Wastes from the livestock, anaerobic digester, algae, and aquaculture all provide valuable fertilizer for algae or other commercial plants either within UCS facilities or for outside agriculture and revenue. 

You can read more about this initiative here.

The rise of Renewable Natural Gas as an example of the Upcycle

Recently in Washington we had some excellent exemplary news on the renewable natural gas front — a perfect example of taking a waste product from the farm (such as animal waste streams, fed to an anaerobic digester to produce biogas). Natural Gas Vehicles for America and the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas announced that 32 percent of all on-road fuel used in natural gas vehicles in calendar year 2018 was renewable natural gas.

Captured above ground from organic material in agricultural, wastewater, landfill or food waste, RNG – or biomethane – produces net carbon-neutral and even net carbon-negative results when fueling on-road vehicles like short- and long-haul trucks, transit buses, and refuse and recycling collection vehicles.  RNG fuel in 2018 had an EER-adjusted carbon intensity as low as -303.30 according to the California Air Resources Board.  By comparison, California’s electricity grid rated between 25.0 and 38.95.

Over the last five years, RNG use as a transportation fuel has increased 577 percent, displacing over seven million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“Proven and affordable natural gas vehicle technology is over 90 percent cleaner than federal EPA nitrogen oxide emission standards,” said Dan Gage, President of NGVAmerica.  “And when those American-made heavy-duty trucks and buses are fueled with renewable natural gas, they are up to 125 percent cleaner than the cleanest diesel technology in terms of carbon emissions.  RNG-fueled vehicles are the most immediate and cost-effective heavy-duty option when seeking to combat climate change.”

“The environmental advantages of using renewable natural gas to replace fossil fuels in on-road transportation have driven substantial growth in development and investment in new RNG production across the U.S.,” said Johannes Escudero, RNG Coalition CEO. “The number of North American RNG production facilities has multiplied more than two-and-a-half times in the past five years to almost 100 today, while RNG fuel use has increased nearly six-fold.”

Details of the report – including graphics – can be accessed at: and

New uses for produced or saved water

In the Netherlands, we have a very good example of how saving or producing water can lead in turn to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the creation of industrial value.

BP, Nouryon and the Port of Rotterdam have joined forces to explore the opportunity of making ‘green hydrogen’ via water electrolysis for BP’s refinery in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which has the potential for significant reductions in CO2 emissions. The refinery currently uses hydrogen made from hydrocarbons, to desulphurize products. Replacing this entirely with green hydrogen produced from water using renewable energy could potentially result in a reduction of 350,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year based on current circumstances.

The parties have signed a memorandum of understanding to study the feasibility of a 250-megawatt water electrolysis facility to produce up to 45,000 tons of green hydrogen yearly using renewable energy. It would be the largest of its kind in Europe. Nouryon would build and operate the facility based on its leadership position in sustainable electrochemistry. The Port of Rotterdam would facilitate local infrastructure and investigate options for further development of a green hydrogen hub in the area. The partners intend to take a final investment decision on the project in 2022.

New uses for biosolids from wastewater treatment

Biosolids, the nutrient-rich soil-like product from wastewater treatment, can now be converted into a marketable, renewable fertilizer, which is now being sold to local farms. Lystek has the technology and this month in San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission received its first payment for sale of its biosolids-based fertilizer. Lystek International (Lystek), a North American leader in biosolids and organics management, has partnered with the SFPUC to convert biosolids, the nutrient-rich soil-like product from wastewater treatment, into a marketable, renewable fertilizer, which is now being sold to local farms.

Through its wastewater treatment process, the SFPUC extracts solids from the incoming wastewater, and uses a biological treatment process (anaerobic digestion) to transform the solids into a fertilizer replacement called biosolids – a compost-like product with valuable soil nutrients. Decades of research and use by farmers have demonstrated that biosolids are an effective way to improve soils and enhance crop growth by returning valuable carbon and nutrients to the land.

The partnership between the SFPUC and Lystek facilitates the production and sale of a climate-friendly fertilizer derived from biosolids and is an example of a larger international movement towards resource recovery and energy efficiency.

This fertilizer is ideal for agriculture as it is carbon-based, contains essential nutrients and increases soil carbon content – which is important for helping soils to hold more water in the face of drought. It can also reduce some of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional fertilizer production.

Wastewater utilities are now expanding their focus from cleaning water to the next environmental frontier—climate change. To help fight climate change and create more resilient communities in the face of volatile temperatures and drought cycles, utilities are ramping up the recovery and use of recycled products from wastewater such as biosolids, recycled water and biogas (a fossil-fuel gas alternative created during the biosolids treatment process).

Waste tires to fuels in Australia

In Australia, Green Distillation Technologies, which has developed world-first technology that transforms old tires into oil, carbon and steel, has received approval for their proposed Toowoomba plant from the Queensland Department of Environment and Science. The tire recycling plant will be built at the Wellcamp Business Park, near Toowoomba Airport and when completed will process approximately 700,000 old tires per year into eight million liters of oil, 7700 tonnes of carbon black and 2000 tonnes of steel.

GDT’s Chief Operating Officer Trevor Bayley has said that they expected the actual development approval for construction of the plant to come before the Toowoomba Regional Council before the end of the month.

“After that, the final hurdle we face is the Queensland Government grant that we have applied for to help fund the $10 million construction bill and if that comes through, we could start preparatory work on the site before the end of May.”

Bayley said that GDT has a firm commitment from Southern Oil to take all the oil they produce anywhere in Australia for conversion into low-sulphur petrol, diesel or jet fuel. The carbon black is a chemical building block widely used in manufacturing, while the steel beading and reinforcing of the tyre will go back to the tyre manufacturers for reuse or for scrap.

The Bottom Line

As Trent observes, food, water and energy are vital — and the good news is that they can be linked into what Douglas Hofstadter referred to as an “eternal golden braid” in his landmark Godel Escher Bach. The evidence is piling up around us that symbiosis, though embryonic, is creating value around the world.

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