Startup lands grant to advance microbial fuel cell technology

By Oregon BEST | March 05, 2015

A cleantech startup that has developed a microbial fuel cell capable of cleaning wastewater at breweries and other food and beverage producers while generating electricity has been awarded a $225,000 Small Business Technology Transfer Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation.

Waste2Watergy, funded in part by Oregon BEST and working with researchers at Oregon State University, is using the new funding to speed development of its technology that could revolutionize wastewater treatment for a range of industries, including food and beverage producers that generate billions of gallons of wastewater containing high levels of organic compounds.

"This novel technology offers significant economic and sustainability advantages to companies by reducing disposal costs and waste volumes, shrinking the footprint of treatment facilities and offering a more sustainable process for wastewater treatment," said Hong Liu, a professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering and coinventor of the core technology. "The social and long term impact is providing energy from a renewable source while benefiting human health."

For the past 18 months, the startup has been partnering with Portland-based Widmer Brothers Brewing, where it installed an early prototype of its system and has just installed a scaled-up version to treat the brewery's wastewater while generating electricity. Brewing is a water-intensive industry, and the wastewater contains an optimal mix of organic ingredients for the microbes in the fuel cell. Those same ingredients cause problems when they reach high concentrations in the effluent stream. Waste2Watergy's system removes the organics from the effluent stream and uses them to produce power in the process.

"Here at Widmer Brothers, we're pleased to be the first host site and be playing a key role in the development of this innovative technology," said Julia Person, sustainability manager at Widmer Brothers. "It¹s been impressive to see our wastewater being cleaned and electricity generated, and it¹s exciting to see the technology grow from the first prototype to the larger scale version."

The new STTR Phase I funding is for one year and is helping the company demonstrate the scalability of the its proprietary cathode material in the fuel cell, the cell's long-term performance and the feasibility of the overall design to effectively clean beverage wastewater. In 2013, Oregon BEST provided $150,000 in funding (and ongoing support through the SBIR/STTR Support Center at Oregon BEST) to advance the technology early in its development.

Integration of the low-cost cathode material and the fuel cell's unique modular design is expected to provide breakthrough performance and cost savings that will enable broad-based commercial deployment of the technology, said Yanzhen Fan, CTO of Waste2Watergy.

"To see a new Oregon-grown startup company we funded and helped nurture now secure follow-on federal funding such as this prestigious STTR grant is very rewarding," said Ken Vaughn, director of commercialization programs at Oregon BEST. "This is a great example of how Oregon BEST helps cleantech startups take a concept from the lab bench to the field."

Federal STTR grants support small businesses that are collaborating with nonprofit research institutions to help bridge the gap between performance of basic science and commercialization of resulting innovations. Oregon BEST offers help to companies seeking SBIR