ISTC program looks ahead to renewable energy waste issues

Solar array

As renewable energy is poised to replace fossil fuels long term in Illinois, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) is delving into a looming issue: what to do with solar modules, wind turbines, and electric vehicle batteries that are no longer used. Keeping these products out of landfills is the primary goal.

ISTC’s Renewable Energy Equipment Recover-Reuse Program has expanded from focusing specifically on solar module reuse and recycling to creating additional partnerships with organizations involved in wind energy and electric storage technologies and systems. This comprehensive view is especially significant because of the recent passage of the Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, which aims to expand the development of renewable energy to deliver 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Through consumer incentives, the act also plans to add more than 1 million electric vehicles to Illinois roads by 2030.

“While we encourage the growth of renewable energy, we also see the issue of handling used equipment as a big problem that’s quickly approaching,” said Jennifer Martin, ISTC environmental program development specialist. “We are looking to prepare a strategic plan with solutions for reusing and recycling renewable energy equipment in Illinois and surrounding states.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that Illinois currently has 2 million solar modules installed in the state. ISTC estimates between 100,000 to 600,000 modules in Illinois will reach their end of life and will need to be managed by 2030. By that time, there could also be 11 million tons of lithium-ion battery waste from electric vehicles in the U.S., according to the International Energy Agency.

The first wind farm in Illinois was established in 2006. A wind turbine’s estimated service life is 15 to 25 years, so the turbines installed on the state’s first wind farm are now starting to reach end of life. As of December 2020, more than 3,000 utility-scale turbines have been installed in Illinois, a number that will continue to grow, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the American Clean Power Association.

Turbine blade composition can make them difficult to transport, recycle, and landfill. These statistics show the enormity of the equipment waste issue now and in the years to come.

Martin and other ISTC staff are evaluating regional environmental and economic impacts on equipment and materials, modeling scenarios, and developing strategies to address viable and cost-effective recycling and repurposing of used solar modules, wind turbines, and lithium batteries for electric vehicles.

A crucial element of the program will be developing and fostering a network of stakeholders of waste management companies, recyclers, manufacturers, industry associations, state agencies, and academic institutions to evaluate issues and solutions.

Martin has been working with a solar end-of-life working group for three years to explore options for handling the waste. Currently, much of the used equipment ends up in landfills.

Materials recycling has great potential, but the present small volumes of end-of-life solar modules can present a problem for system owners. It is now more economical for solar owners to toss materials away than recycle them, Martin said.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the cost of landfilling solar-power equipment can typically range between $1 to $5 per module, while the cost of recycling is between $15 to $25. This doesn’t include the decommissioning labor and shipping fees.

Reusing is another alternative. Solar panels that are replaced can still have between 70 to 95 percent of their useful life. These panels could be donated for use by schools, park shelters, and other sites. However, there is no state or nationwide network set up to connect entities interested in used modules with solar farm owners.

Electric vehicle batteries can also be recycled, refurbished to their original usage, or repurposed. Recycling helps divert materials from landfills while recovering critical materials that could lessen the U.S. dependence on foreign markets and imports.

A key component of the program is to determine the infrastructure for recycling and repurposing that needs to be in place so renewable energy equipment isn’t taking up limited landfill space and helps to create a more circular economy.

Media contact: Jennifer Martin, 217-300-3593,

Farmers show interest in Farm to Food Bank Program

shipping crate of peaches
Credit: Zach Samaras

While thousands of Illinoisans go hungry every day, up to 40 percent of food goes uneaten. The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), Feeding Illinois, and other organizations are partnering to explore new, viable ways to connect farmers directly with food banks to increase the state’s food supply for the food insecure and reduce waste.

The Farm to Food Bank program partners are conducting a feasibility study for a statewide program, identifying approaches to address barriers, evaluating logistical challenges, and uncovering locally appropriate strategies. The result will be a roadmap used to roll out a state-funded program in Illinois, according to Zach Samaras, ISTC technical assistance engineer.

Besides ISTC and Feeding Illinois, study collaborators include the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association. In the first year, the team has conducted a farmer survey, started a pilot project, and visited the eight state food banks.

Farmer survey

One of the first actions was to create and distribute a statewide survey to farmers. Questions pertained to the type of product that farmers produce, their marketing strategies, barriers to production, and food losses. Slightly less than 10 percent of survey participants responded. The next step is survey analysis.

Farmers are also being recruited for focus groups to be held at an agricultural conference in early winter. This will be an opportunity for the collaborators to gauge farmers’ interest in the possibility of participating in a Farm to Food Bank program and collect further information on factors that would make participation more feasible for producers. Those interested in participating in focus groups should contact ISTC at

Pilot project

In the first pilot project, which started this summer, Rendleman Orchards in Alto Pass donated grade 2 peaches to a food bank in southern Illinois. Grade 2 produce is typically small or has slight blemishes.

The organizations are looking to find an optimal mixture of incentives for farmers to participate in the program. In this case, the farm receives a tax deduction for the donated produce and reimbursement from Feeding Illinois and the food banks for the “pick and pack” costs.

The pilot project quickly scaled up from two pallets of peaches transported to one food bank in southern Illinois to over 40 pallets sent to four food banks in various parts of the state.

“While we are very happy with the numbers, our biggest goal was to build relationships between the farmers and the food banks and develop a process that could work for a variety of farms across the state,” said Samaras. “We certainly feel like we are on the right track.”

Farmer feedback

Since the program began, farmers have been receptive to learning more about the opportunity, said Steve Ericson, executive director of Feeding Illinois. Actual participation has been more challenging because once the growing, harvest, and marketing seasons begin, farmers find it too disruptive to start or change plans already in place. Also, it is important not to interfere with existing relationships farmers have with food pantries, which are distribution centers that receive food from food banks.

“The primary thing we’ve learned in this first year is that this is a learning year, Ericson said. “The interest is definitely there. In general and by nature, farmers are community-oriented. ‘Helping others’ is in their DNA. We want this program to provide a meaningful way for them to do that as a group and individually.”

A major future challenge will be determining the logistics of transporting a certain volume of produce efficiently from the farm to food banks. The growing season for specialty crops in Illinois is only six months long, a time when farmers are consumed with work at the farm. Another barrier is that Illinois’ specialty crop farms are for the most part smaller and more widespread than those in other renowned produce states.

Convincing farmers that it is worthwhile to build business relationships with food banks versus contributing locally will take time to instill and to prove the benefits, Ericson said.

The Farm to Food Bank program is supported by the USDA through The Emergency Food Assistance Program. For more information, visit the Farm to Food Bank Program website.


Media contact: Zach Samaras, 217-265-6723,

ISTC program marks big savings for Illinois wastewater treatment plants

Wastewater treatment plant

Illinois municipalities hoping to save money on energy costs for wastewater treatment turn to ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) for advice.

The Wastewater Treatment Plant Energy Assistance Program started in 2018 with funding from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Partnering with the University of Illinois’ Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC), the TAP team visits publicly owned wastewater treatment plants across the state and drafts no-cost assessments with specific recommendations on how to lower energy costs. Similar assessments would cost between $6,000 and $12,000.

In four years, this project has developed 108 specialized energy efficiency assessments for individual wastewater treatment plants, identifying recommendations that can save municipalities over $2.8 million annually.

Wastewater treatment plants are one of the largest users of energy in cities. The costs are significant, particularly for plants with older infrastructure. The assessments typically include costs for equipment upgrades or retrofits, the time it takes for an upgrade to pay off in energy savings, and the amount of savings that could be realized with these upgrades.

Assessments also include utility incentives from companies such as Ameren and ComEd to offset as much as 75 percent of the costs for new and updated equipment, according to Mike Springman, retiring manager of the program.

To date, the program has assisted plants serving a total population of nearly 3 million with an annual energy cost savings of $500,000 each year. If the recommendations were all implemented, the savings would include 37.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity and greenhouse gas emissions at 32,590 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

The most common areas that could be improved upon to save energy costs are controls on air blowers, variable speed drives on pumps, and indoor and outdoor lighting. Even small changes can make a big difference, Springman said.

Recently, more plant operators have posed questions about solar energy. Size of the facility and space availability are primary determining factors.

“The next assessment reports will include a discussion on solar energy so that they can make an educated decision,” Springman said.

Over time, Springman’s job has become more challenging.

“The opportunities for cost savings are becoming more complicated,” he said. “The low-hanging fruit has been picked. The easy, low-cost items have already been fixed.”

Springman says that the biggest challenge that treatment plants have faced this year is the biodegradeable wipes that end up in the sewer system. The wipes may eventually degrade in a landfill but they bind up the pumps at wastewater treatment plants, causing a big headache for staff.

The IEPA Wastewater Treatment Plant Energy Assistance Program will continue for at least another three years and will be extended to wastewater treatment for potable water.

Email TAP at and visit the TAP website here.


Media contact: April Janssen Mahajan, 217-244-0469,

New DOE-funded projects set to design energy storage systems for power plants

It is challenging to integrate renewable resources into the distribution grid of fossil-fueled power plants when energy is most needed. The results are often intermittent and unpredictable, which makes it difficult to match energy demand with supply.

In three new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-funded projects, scientists in the Prairie Research Institute will design systems and explore the feasibility of combining the use of renewable and fossil energy sources to ensure both short and long-term reliability in electric power delivery.

A natural gas energy storage system

In a three-year project, scientists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) will design a 10 MWh compressed natural gas energy storage (CNGES) system at the University of Illinois’ Abbott Power Plant, which uses oil and coal to power campus.

Electrically powered compressors are used in CNGES to raise the pressure of natural gas during off-peak hours. Natural gas is then stored in cylinders or in an underground pipeline.

During peak-demand hours, the stored gas is discharged through an expander-generator to partially recover the electricity used in the compression step. The chemical energy stored in the natural gas is integrated with fossil fuels to provide peak power using existing compressors and pipelines.

“The project, which will demonstrate the benefits to the power plant, energy grid, and the environment, will advance the CNGES technology towards commercial use,” said Kevin OBrien, who is principal investigator for this project and leads ISTC. Some of the benefits include reduced fuel costs, carbon emissions, and maintenance. It also increases plant efficiency.

The CNGES technology has not yet been tested with fossil fuels. Once the project is complete, findings will aid in understanding the advantages and challenges of integrating energy storage with coal and natural gas fired power plants.

DOE awarded $200,000 for the $250,000 project. The co-principal investigator is Mohamed Attalla, executive director of the U of I Facilities and Services.

Compressed air storage

A team of geologists at the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), along with engineers and power plant specialists, are designing a compressed air energy storage system that will increase the reliability of renewable energy from solar and wind farms and integrate the system with the Abbott fossil fuel power plant. DOE awarded $200,000 for the project, with a total budget of more than $250,000.

Compressed air energy storage (CAES) is a technology used to store compressed air in the subsurface sedimentary strata so that when the high-pressure air is returned to the surface it powers turbines to produce additional electricity as needed during power interruptions from severe weather or fossil fuel disruptions. The team plans to design an integrated system to store compressed air and thermal heat generated by compression underground.

Part of the project will involve evaluating the capability of sandstone aquifers to quickly release air to run turbine generators and determining the equipment needed to remove residual saline water to avoid corrosion in the system. The team will also quantify the storage capacity and evaluate this method for storing air and heat in the subsurface.

Heat dissipation during air compression has been considered an important factor in CAES energy capture efficiency, so researchers will evaluate the captured heat that is stored in the porous reservoirs with the compressed air, while determining other factors such as air speeds and the volume of formation water. The project team will also determine how much of the injected air remains in the formation during the recovery period.

“CAES has been geographically limited to areas with caverns created from subsurface salt deposits,” said Hannes Leetaru, ISGS geologist and principal investigator of the project. “However, the Illinois CAES project will evaluate using subsurface porous reservoirs without the need for caverns by injecting compressed air into subsurface porous strata. This is the first ever subsurface porous reservoir CAES system that is being attempted.”

Underground and above-ground hydrogen storage

Scientists at the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) will team with several companies on a $200,000 DOE-funded project to study the feasibility of storing hydrogen underground in sedimentary rock, by determining baseline subsurface requirements and conditions for hydrogen storage. An above-ground compressed hydrogen storage system will also be used for a combined storage of more than 250 megawatt hours.

The hydrogen will be produced from natural gas by the Gas Technology Institute’s novel compact hydrogen generator. This process also produces carbon dioxide that will be captured and sequestered geologically.

Some of the hydrogen will be stored on the surface for immediate demand use and some will be stored underground separately from the carbon dioxide for longer duration energy storage. The combination of generating hydrogen for energy coupled with storage of carbon dioxide is considered “blue hydrogen” and results in a very low carbon emission energy source.

“The integrated energy system will also provide the means to further test and perfect the technological components to store energy underground and reduce carbon emissions,” said Steve Whittaker, ISGS geologist. “Successful integration of this approach will significantly increase opportunities for hydrogen storage across the U.S. as well as transform energy sustainability options by the tandem sequestration of CO2.”

Partners on the project include the Gas Technology Institute, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Hexagon Purus, and Ameren. DOE provided $200,000 in funding for the $316,000 project.


Media contacts: Kevin OBrien,; Hannes Leetaru,; Steve Whittaker,

This post originally appeared at Prairie Research Institute News. Read the original post.

DOE-funded project to find beneficial uses for coal combustion wastes

"Ash lagoon, West Pans" by Richard Webb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Ash lagoon, West Pans” by Richard Webb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are beginning a $1 million, two-year project to find new and value-added uses for fly ash, a powdery remnant of burning coal. Confining the ash in vegetable oil will potentially reduce the amount of fly ash waste and lessen the risk of heavy metals from waste piles leaching into surface and groundwater.

Although fly ash is used in concrete, construction materials, and other products, a significant amount is stored in ash ponds and sent to landfills. Fly ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and other harmful chemicals, posing human health and environmental risks when rainwater causes contaminants to leach underground.

“Our biggest motivation for the project is to investigate new, beneficial uses of fly ash, particularly in encapsulating ash into vegetable oils, to help eliminate exposure of heavy metals to the environment,” said BK Sharma, principal investigator of the project.

In this new approach, the scientists will use their expertise in modifying vegetable oils to coat fly ash particles with oil so that the contaminants are fully contained. The challenge will be identifying the appropriate vegetable oil and the right operating conditions to ensure a uniform coating, according to Sriraam Chandrasekaran, co-principal investigator.

The smallest fly ash particles contain the highest concentration of toxic elements. The project targets removing these fine fractions to reduce contamination while also developing a marketable product for commercial use.

“Because of their small size, the ash particles are ideally suited for use as fillers in plastics,” Chandrasekaran said. “The project will not only provide a value-added coated fly ash product but will also help us identify ways to use other fractions in different applications.”

 When fly ash is used in concrete and other materials, its economic value is particularly low. So, it’s not economical to transport the material from power plants to other states or regions.

If ISTC scientists can develop a new technology to develop fillers and toughening agents in products for a booming market—in this case, estimated to be $10 billion a year in the U.S.—the vegetable oil encapsulated fly ash will command a much higher price than unmodified fly ash while also increasing beneficial uses, Sharma said.

In addition, a successful project will make transporting fly ash long distances more economically feasible, provide incentives to develop technologies to size and store fly ash, and create non-seasonal product demand.

The ISTC team is partnering with The Ohio State University, where scientists will investigate the use of coated fly ash materials to replace carbon black filler materials in rubber, particularly for use in tires. Funding is provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.


Media contacts: BK Sharma, 217-265-6810,, Sriraam Chandrasekaran, 217-300-1477,

‘Plastics don’t ever go away’—ISTC scientist John Scott studies impact of microplastics

DOE funds new technologies in plastic recycling

Bundled plastics

ISTC is part of a national team to develop artificial intelligence technologies to sort non-recyclable plastics so they can be reused for fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded the team $2.5 million to complete the three-year project.

Plastics recycling in the U.S. typically requires manual sorting as workers pick out the useful kinds of plastic from conveyor belts and discard the non-recyclable types. This process is labor-intensive and expensive. In this new project, scientists are using high-tech sensors developed by UHV Technologies, Inc. and commercialized through its spin-off Sortera Alloys that will detect specific chemical-based “fingerprints” of each kind of plastic polymer, classifying them through a new system and sorting them into different bins.

“Sensor fusion and artificial intelligence algorithms used in the process will increase the speed and accuracy of plastic sorting, eventually making the technology more economical with a cost goal of less than $30 per ton,” said BK Sharma, co-principal investigator of the project.

Sensor fusion will generate a unique fingerprint for plastic pieces, while deep learning and artificial intelligence algorithms will create a novel classification system for the plastics.

Another challenge for the project is to reduce plastic contamination, a major reason why plastics end up in landfills. One of the project goals is to develop low-cost methods that decrease contamination to less than 5 percent. Improving the purity of plastic waste increases its potential and value for reuse.

A successful process that produces clean plastics, separated by type, could offer marketable products while diverting non-recyclable materials (plastics #3–#7) from landfills. Sharma’s primary role will be to use the catalytic pyrolysis process to determine if the plastics can be used to produce valuable products, primarily diesel or aviation fuels along with gasoline, naphtha, and waxes.

Besides ISTC, the team includes:

  • UHV Technologies, which has created sorting technologies for other products;
  • The Idaho National Laboratory, to complete chemical composition analysis and screening techniques; and
  • The Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, which will help to integrate the proposed technology into the existing recycling industry.

“At the end of the project, if we can come up with a process that can convert mixed plastic into a low-cost feedstock to produce different types of fuels and other products, that will be a big success,” Sharma said.


Media contact: BK Sharma, 217-265-6810,

This story originally appeared on the Prairie Research Institute website. View the original story here.

New plan links north Chicago communities with walking and biking trail

People walk and ride on a paved trail

A multi-institution team has released a plan to build a 109-mile walking and biking trail connecting five communities along the lakeshore in northern Illinois to promote safer, healthier, and friendlier neighborhoods and allow better access to Lake Michigan beaches and parks.

The Northern Lakeshore Trail Connectivity Plan recommends the investment of $100 million to reduce the number of vehicle crashes that involve pedestrians or bicyclists, increase physical activity, eliminate sidewalk gaps within a one-quarter mile of schools and parks, and lower transportation costs for residents, among other goals.

The trail would connect Winthrop Harbor, Zion, Beach Park, Waukegan, and North Chicago, as well as Illinois Beach State Park, a 4,000-acre park north of Chicago. The plan project was funded in part by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Coastal Management Program with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with match funds from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

“A lot of people in these communities have not had the chance to take advantage of the precious gem that is the Lake Michigan shoreline,” said Vidya Balasubramanyam, Prairie Research Institute (PRI) coastal hazard specialist working with the IDNR Coastal Management Program. “This plan gives them an avenue to access the coastline, enjoy recreational activities offered, and appreciate nature.”

The plan also creates a shift away from the culture of vehicles and addresses equity issues involving those who don’t have a vehicle or a safe space to walk or bike to other locations.

“It envisions a more accessible, friendlier vibe for communities,” said Balasubramanyam, manager of the project.

Starting in early 2019, committees of numerous organizations and community stakeholders convened with design teams to create their vision of a year-round infrastructure. Now that the plan has been developed, it offers a unified plan linking the sites and outlines recommendations and actions necessary to complete the plan. The plan also provides maps of trails and details about potential funding sources for the project.

The plan’s strength is its representation from various communities that buy in to the purpose of improving trail infrastructure and bus stops and shelters, while improving trail signs, intersections, and bike parking.

The project team included representatives from IDNR; PRI; IDNR Coastal Management Program; CMAP; Epstein, an engineering firm; the Lakota Group, an urban design team; and Active Transportation Alliance, which promotes walking and biking. The steering committee included Balasubramanyam and representatives from the five communities.

The Northern Lakeshore Trail Connectivity project website is

In a related IDNR project, PRI ecologist Danielle Nelson manages the Lake Michigan Water Trail project, which encourages Illinoisans to kayak, canoe, or sail on the water trail near the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

In the PRI Coastal Management Program at the University of Illinois, scientists study the mitigation of polluted water runoff in coastal areas, collect data on groundwater contamination, and create shoreline erosion and habitat vulnerability models for Illinois Beach State Park to inform decisions on shoreline management.


Media contact: Vidya Balasubramanyam, 847-906-3570,

This post originally appeared on the Prairie Research Institute blog. Read the original post.

New project uses biochar to absorb excess nutrients from tile drainage

In a new $1 million three-year project, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) researchers will develop a bioreactor and biochar-sorption-channel treatment system to remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus from tile drainage water, which will reduce nutrient loss from crop fields to local waterways.

Excess nutrients in surface water contribute to harmful algal blooms that produce toxins and threaten the health of water ecosystems. A variety of treatment techniques have been studied to reduce nutrient losses.

Woodchip bioreactors, which are buried trenches, have proven to be a cost-effective and sustainable solution to reduce nitrate-nitrogen loss from tile-drained crop fields. However, concentrations of ammonium-nitrogen are often elevated after water has flowed through a bioreactor. Also, woodchip bioreactors do not have a significant effect on phosphorus removal.

Principal investigator Wei Zheng and colleagues plan to develop an innovative treatment system by integrating woodchip bioreactor and designer biochar treatment techniques to reduce the losses of both nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from tile drainage.

Designer biochars are applied in biochar-sorption-channels to capture dissolved phosphorus and ammonium-nitrogen simultaneously. Researchers will seek to produce the most efficient designer biochars by pyrolysis of biomass pretreated with lime sludge.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded project will evaluate the new system by conducting a scale-up field study at a commercial corn production farm.

Researchers will also apply the nutrient-captured biochars as a soil amendment and a slow-release fertilizer in fields to improve soil fertility.

The results from this project will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nutrient management practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and offer an innovative, feasible, and cost-effective practice to mitigate the excess nutrient loads to watersheds, prevent and control algal blooms, and improve agricultural sustainability.

Media contact: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276,,

New project is set to find ways to manage emerging contaminants

Scientists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are tackling the issue of pharmaceutical contaminants from irrigation with rural sewage effluents in a newly funded project.

Collaborating with the Illinois State Water Survey, principal investigator Wei Zheng has begun a three-year study to investigate emerging contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), in fields irrigated with effluents from rural sewage treatment plants and to develop effective strategies to reduce the amount of contaminants transported to surface or groundwater.

Rural sewage effluent has great potential as an alternative to irrigation water, yet there are concerns about possible negative effects. Rural treatment plants are less effective at removing PPCPs compared to municipal wastewater treatment plants. Therefore, the use of effluents might pose a risk to surface and groundwater ecosystems.

Also, field tile drainage systems, which are commonly used in the Midwest, may accelerate the losses of these chemical contaminants from agricultural soils to nearby watersheds. The potential negative effects of using rural sewage effluent to irrigate tile-drained fields are essentially unknown.

In this project, the research team will conduct a series of laboratory, field, and numerical modeling studies to investigate the processes affecting contaminant transport, track the occurrence of PPCPs, and develop two cost-effective control techniques, oil capture and biochar-sorption channels.

The results will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nontraditional water-use practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and suggest best management strategies to minimize risks and promote the safe and beneficial use of nontraditional water in agriculture.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Media contact: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276,