UPDATED: IntAct targets water treatment

By Holly Jessen | March 16, 2010
Posted April 13, 2010

A Cambridge, Mass., company founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists and graduates wants to solve the water treatment problems of the ethanol industry. IntAct Labs LLC has been awarded a $46,770 U.S. EPA grant to further research ethanol stillage treatment using a microbial fuel cell process, according to Justin Buck, chief technology officer for the company.

The microbial fuel cells harness the power of microbes to take organic matter and waste and break it down into water and CO2. The main benefit of this, Buck said, was that the process generates clean water without leaving as much waste behind. Typical wastewater treatment at a traditional ethanol plant results in 3 to 5 liters of waste solids for every liter of ethanol. (Or, roughly 3 to 5 gallons of waste for every gallon of ethanol.)

For cellulosic ethanol production, IntAct is designing a bio-electrochemical system to address the parts of the process that are "pain points" or cost drains, said Matt Silver, CEO. Some possible problem areas for cellulosic plants include generation of ammonia, sulfates and potassium. "So part of the goal of the Phase I is to conduct a detailed systems analysis to help design an integrated process for the ethanol industry," Sliver said. "The long term vision is to contribute to the creation of an integrated bio-refinery of the future.'"

Another positive of the IntAct system is that, instead of consuming electricity, the system produces it. It's a small amount of electricitynot enough to sell to the grid or power the ethanol plant, Buck said. However, the goal is that the system will generate enough electricity to power the water treatment system, making it energy neutral instead of an energy drain.

Currently, IntAct is focusing its efforts on making the technology work for the biofuels sector. The company is actively searching for partners in that field for testing and pilot-scale research, Buck said. The technology is workable for traditional ethanol production as well as cellulosic ethanol plants.

The microbial fuel cell process could, however, be used in a variety of industries, from agricultural waste or industrial food production waste. The first application the company worked on for its microbial fuel cells received funding from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts. The long-term goal was to use it in space travel, to recycle wastes and cut the electricity consumption of the life support system, he said.

NOTE: A paragraph about cellulosic ethanol was added with information from Matt Silver, CEO.