A Seattle startup hopes that in the near future, every time you flush your toilet you help power your car.
Vitruvian Energy has developed technology that turns biosolids – the dirt-like material left over once sewage has been treated at a plant and the inert water returned to the watershed – into biofuel. Right now the company is crowdfunding to launch their fuel locally.
It takes about 53 pounds of biosolids to make a gallon of EEB, Vitruvian’s biofuel. The biosolids are run through a series of biological and chemical steps to go from a dirt-like material to a clear liquid that has a sweet smell.
“It doesn’t stink like you would think!” said Zack McMurry, Vitruvian founder and EEB co-inventor.
The company has produced about two gallons of EEB, which was tested at Oak Ridge National Labs in their combustion engine lab.
The difference between EEB and other biofuels, McMurry said, is that it can be blended with gasoline and diesel. “That’s interesting because it allows us to kind of ease into using this biofuel. You don’t have to create a car that just runs on our biofuel,” he said.
So far, up to a 20 percent blend has been tested in gasoline and diesel engines, which McMurry said could help displace some of the non-renewable oil-based fuels.
According to McMurry the “poopaline,” as it is more casually known, also sidesteps the “fuel vs. food fight,” since it is not as dependent on agricultural products such as corn – which is used for ethanol – palm oil, or soy oil.
“They end up just being limited by how much cheap agricultural oil they can get their hands on,” McMurry said. “And so poopaline actually is another biofuel made from a different source of material that's not being used for anything in the biofuel world.”
According to McMurry, King County is one of the more progressive areas for recycling its biosolids, which it brands as “Loop.”
“They’ve done a really good job – you can see on the King County website – of recognizing biosolids as a commodity to be used for something. They don't really know what exactly, but they're trying really hard to do outreach,” McMurry said, speaking on KUOW’s The Record.
That’s where McMurry’s company comes in. He said that it’s been surprisingly easy to obtain the biosolids; otherwise the waste treatment plants would have to pay to dispose of them.
County officials “seem very amenable to talking about it,” he said, but “like any municipality they're a little risk adverse.”
“Part of the success of this technology will be getting the community interested, getting them demanding this technology in Seattle.”
The company hopes that down the road their technology can be used to produce fuel from other waste sources as well, like corn stover or rice straw. For McMurry, the passion comes from looking outside of the box for energy solutions that are more environmentally friendly.
“It really is going to take a drastically different type of technology to make some kind of real change,” he said. “There’s lots of existing renewable energy technologies out there, but we found that just by growing them organically and very slowly – ‘one solar panel at a time’ – we’re just not making enough headway.”
Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.