Technology could turn municipal waste into ethanol, researcher believes

Forward-thinking municipalities may one day be able to generate revenue from an unavoidable process on which they already spend millions of dollars if a UWindsor scientist can develop a process to create eco-friendly fuel from organic waste.

Subba Rao Chaganti, who works in professor Dan Heath’s lab at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is examining a microbial battery which can convert solid municipal waste in to ethanol.

“It will be a breakthrough if we can succeed with what we’re trying to do,” said Dr. Chaganti, the recipient of a coveted Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation $100,000 post-doctoral award.

Municipal solid waste can be treated by a bacterial process called anaerobic digestion, which also creates both methane and carbon dioxide. By using microbial battery technology, Chaganti proposes to capture electrons from the anaerobic degradation process and combine them with carbon dioxide, which in turn produces ethanol.

Chaganti already completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of environmental engineering professor Jerry Lalman, a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Biotechnology. Now that he’s at GLIER under the tutelage of Heath, a conservation geneticist, he can work on genetically modifying various types of bacteria so they can produce ethanol more efficiently.

“In this process we need to understand how bacteria behave,” said Chaganti, a native of Hyderabad, who earned PhD in biotechnology from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology. “We need to understand the genes that will enhance ethanol production.”

Over in his lab in the new Centre for Engineering Innovation, he works with engineering tools to study the process, creating actual working models of it to measure its effectiveness and how much ethanol it will produce. Based on the fact that Ontario creates about 450 billion litres of waste water per day, Chaganti believes we could produce a great deal more ethanol for the transportation industry.

Another plus about the process, he added, is that it could potentially reduce the amount of corn that’s used to produce ethanol, an activity which is having the undesirable side effect of inflating international food prices.

“There’s a huge market for ethanol,” said Chaganti, who noted that the capability to combine his expertise in engineering and microbial genetics lab is a luxury that’s not lost on him.

“My research is very interdisciplinary,” he said. “To have this flexibility and access to a combination of facilities is very rare.”