UBC Okanagan researcher wants to turn waste into renewable energy

A professor of engineering at UBC Okanagan is working with municipalities, farms, factories and mills to identify effective ways to turn their organic waste into renewable energy — methane — and organic fertilizer.

Cigdem Eskicioglu’s research is examining ways to improve energy production from agricultural and industrial waste, while also diverting waste from landfills and reducing pathogens, odour and greenhouse gas emissions.

“In Canada, our waste is not utilized as a resource,” says Eskicioglu. “If we can make use of the waste in innovative ways to extract energy and recycle it within our communities, this will take Canada a step closer to achieving its Kyoto targets for greenhouse
gas reduction.”

Anaerobic digestion — a treatment that breaks down organic waste in the absence of oxygen — produces a biogas comprised primarily of methane and carbon dioxide that can be used to generate electricity and heat. Eskicioglu’s research group develops advanced anaerobic digestion processes for turning organic residues — manure, food processing waste, bioethanol plant stillage, sewage sludge, even the organic portions of garbage — into energy sources and nutrient-rich fertilizer.

In partnership with the University of Ottawa, Eskicioglu is examining techniques to break down — or disintegrate — the highly complex waste sludges from a pulp mill in Quesnel, B.C.

“By disintegrating biowaste into a smaller, simpler form of organics, we can enhance the biodegradation rate, and therefore increase the amount of methane produced,” says Eskicioglu.

“If this study reveals high methane potential, then the pulp mill may want to build their own digester, which would give them the ability to use their waste to create energy that could potentially be used in their facility and end up saving them money, while at the same time reducing their carbon footprint.”

Eskicioglu is also talking to the City of Kelowna in the B.C. Interior about a more sustainable disposal method for biosolids from the community’s wastewater treatment plant.

“Currently, the municipal biosolids are being mixed with woodchips to produce compost, but composting has a large carbon footprint as well as some other environmental issues such as odour,” says Eskicioglu.

Eskicioglu hopes to test the concept of co-digesting the biosolids anaerobically with other organic waste available in the region. If the process produces significant methane, the gas could be captured and used to generate electricity, while the now-digested biosolids could be used as organic-rich fertilizer.

Eskicioglu’s research is supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada. She recently received an additional $319,962 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, equipment vendors, and UBC to establish her new state-of-the-art laboratory.

New equipment will enhance the lab’s ability to disintegrate biowaste using advanced microwave, ultrasonic and mechanical techniques, says Eskicioglu.

“This new infrastructure will help me identify the organic waste suitable for anaerobic digestion in the Okanagan,” she says. “If samples indicate a high potential of methane, we can look at ways of building full-scale digesters to convert this waste into resources and become a more sustainable community.”