Sustainability: A Force for Good in our Galaxy

WRITTEN BY: Katherine Gardiner ISTC staff

 

You may have heard that a new Star Wars movie came out last week. If you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, don’t worry, we won’t spoil it for you. But it got us thinking about sustainability in the Star Wars universe.

 

Yes, it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But are there lessons, and warnings in the story for us? On one end of the sustainability spectrum there are the Ewoks, who live respectfully off the land and use their resources wisely. On the other end of the spectrum there’s the Death Star, which destroys entire planets just to show off its power. Generally speaking, folks in our world fall somewhere in between.

 

recycling is not just for jawas!The Ewoks’ Forest Moon of Endor sustained them in their happy lifestyle. But what happened on Tatooine, where Anakin and Luke grew up? Environmentally it took a wrong turn at some point, reminding us of droughts and wildfires growing more common in California and across the country.

 

Habitat preservation is important if we want our world to remain habitable for generations to come. On Tatooine, they acknowledged the scarcity of water on their planet and relied heavily on moisture farms. One predicted effect of climate change here on earth is altered weather patterns, leading to a shift in agricultural growing zones. In the Midwest, we love our corn and soybean farms. No one wants to replace this valuable facet of our economy with moisture farms, which use moisture vaporators to pull water from the humidity in the air, just to have access to clean water. If avoiding the effects of climate change means reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, count me in.

 

C-3PO, rebuilt by young Anakin Skywalker from scrap parts, demonstrates the value of reusing resources and recycling. Han Solo and Chewbacca also repaired and refurbished the legendary Millennium Falcon many times rather than scrapping it for a new starship. The electronics and machinery repair in Star Wars is inspiring, as we have so much electronic waste in our society today. To learn how to reuse, recycle, and repair your electronics, visit the Illini Gadget Garage, or check what repair resources are available in your community.

 

You may be wondering what fuel these spaceships used to travel such great distances – let’s hope they didn’t have to deal with inflated gas prices around the holidays! The Millennium Falcon and other standard starships use different sorts of fuels, commonly Rhydonium, mined on the planet Abafar. According to Wookieepedia, the Millennium Falcon used hypermatter to go into hyperdrive and reach lightspeed. While we’re not sure about the sustainability of using hypermatter, we do know about at least one renewable energy source in the Star Wars universe.

 

As part of Jedi training, younglings were sent to the Crystal Caves of Ilum to mine kyber crystals for their lightsabers. Kyber crystals, while rare, are inexhaustible sources of energy as their power does not diminish over time. These crystals are used to power lightsabers as well as the Death Star’s planet-destroying superlaser — I guess both the light- and dark-sides appreciate renewable energy!

 

When we look to our own world we can see renewable energy sources such as wind and solar on the rise. Innovations in these areas include printable solar panels, floating wind turbines, and sustainable lighting that help fight mosquito infestations.

 

Ah, Star Wars…. A fictional story perhaps it may be. But, teach us much about how to keep our light in the galaxy it can.

 

Symposium to explore solutions to plastic recycling in Illinois

Written by Jim Dexter

multi colored plastic beads

 

Ideas for “Revitalizing Plastics Recycling” will be the topic for a symposium hosted by the Illinois Recycling Association and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the I Hotel and Conference Center on the University of Illinois campus from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12.

 

Plastic production has risen steeply decade upon decade in the United States, primarily for use in packaging, and as a cheap, tough, lightweight substitute for glass and metal.

 

Ironically glass and metal are far more economical to recycle, so used plastic has come to blight the environment. The U.N. Environmental Program estimates that the U.S. recycled only nine percent of its post-consumer plastic in 2012. The program also reports that up to 43 percent of waste plastic finds its way into landfills. That leaves a lot of plastic unaccounted for.

 

Factors that make plastic easy or hard to recycle depends largely on logistics in the local recycling market, according to B.K. Sharma, senior research scientist at ISTC, a division of the Prairie Research Institute, and one of the presenters at the symposium.

 

Take polyethylene, for instance, which comes in two varieties – high density or low density, according to Sharma. If it is extruded (as in disposable drink bottles) it can usually be economically crushed, handled, and transported. If polyethylene products are molded they are typically too dense and/or brittle for a recycler to profitably manipulate. Expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) is another example of a hard-to-recycle plastic. All volume and no weight, it is expensive to transport and few communities today offer opportunities to recycle it, Sharma explained.

 

Ken Santowski’s Chicago Logistic Service has been working to provide Styrofoam recycling to citizens of the greater Chicago area. He will speak at the symposium of his company’s success in dealing with that necessary evil.

 

The symposium will also deal with another scourge of plastic recycling – agricultural plastics. It wraps bales, covers forage, bags silage, covers silo bunkers, and makes farmers more productive in many ways. But once used it doesn’t all go easily into dumpsters and is too lightweight to make much economic sense to conventional recyclers. Tanner Smith, corporate development analyst for Delta Plastics, will discuss dealing with agricultural plastics at the symposium.

 

Sharma’s lab has approached the problem from a different angle. He has demonstrated how petroleum-derived polymers can be “reverse engineered” right back into gasoline, diesel, and even jet fuel. He has also shown how high-value “fractions” can be recovered from trash that might have ended up in landfills. He will be giving a demonstration at the symposium of the technology which can be used to convert plastics to oil.

 

The symposium will bring together experts on different aspects of the problem and share solutions on how to improve Illinois’ experience and record of plastic recycling. To register, and for more information about the symposium visit the Illinois Recycling Association’s website.

 

Illinois Sustainable Technology Center logo

Illinois Recycling Association logo

Air, Water, Soil: Prairie Research Institute Researchers Host Chinese Peers

 

SoyFace research site
SoyFace studies methods to enhance agricultural yields today and in the face of changing climatic conditions.

Scientists from seven Chinese universities visited the University of Illinois July 11-13 to compare research goals and approaches in their efforts for cleaner air, water and soil.
The Prairie Research Institute (PRI) China Workshop deepened relationships begun in recent years by environmental experts of both countries to strengthen scientific collaborations. The workshop examined environmental concerns about air, water, and soil pollution that are of mutual interest to help solve a wide range of critical issues in these areas.

 

 

weather and air quality monitoring site
PRI’s Illinois State Water Survey maintains one of the nation’s most comprehensive weather and air quality monitoring sites.

The Chinese visitors represented the College of Civil Engineering at Nanjin University, Jiangsu Insitute of Environmental Industry, the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at Tongji University, the School of Environmental Engineering and Sciences of North China Electric Power University, the College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at Peking University, Chongqing Institute of Green and intelligent Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the School of Space and Environment at Beihang University, and Beijing Dopler Eco-Technologies Co.
The visitors also sampled a number of high-profile U of I research projects including agricultural enhancement at SoyFace (top), weather and air quality monitoring (second from top) and (third from top) soil reclamation (Mud-to-Parks dredging project at Lake Decatur).

 

 

topsoil recovery project at Lake Decatur
PRI’s Illinois Sustainable Technology Center has pioneered the recovery of lake and river sediments (here from Lake Decatur) for use as high quality top soil.

Wide-ranging technical presentations during the workshop included focuses on:
• air pollution modeling, health effects and remediation;
• surface and groundwater contamination and new treatment strategies; and
• soil contamination prevention and remediation.

 

Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin (bottom) welcomed the Chinese scientists, describing the long history of friendship and cooperation between cities and universities in China.

 

 

Urbana mayor marlin toasted Chinese visitors
Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin toasted the success of the PRI/China research collaboration.

 

 

 

Jobs and growth can help halt greenhouse gas

Experts worldwide are meeting this week in Calabria, Italy to focus on ways to deploy carbon dioxide capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies.

Kevin OBrien
Kevin OBrien, director of ISTC and interim director of ISWS, at CO2 Summit III in Calabria, Italy.

Today Kevin OBrien, who leads both the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and the Illinois State Water Survey, spoke about the opportunities to treat “CCUS as a Regional Economic Development Tool.”

The presentation was made at the CO2 Summit III: Pathways to Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Deployment conference.

Reducing CO2 emissions while also maintaining economic growth requires balancing many complex technological, political, and social aspects, according to OBrien.

Deployment will bring significant implications for regional energy, water, and transportation, he said. By focusing on job growth and community resilience, OBrien said, CCUS can draw on, and build on, regional alliances for education, business, and community development.

The Prairie Research Institute, through its Illinois State Geological Survey and ISTC, have become leaders in the development and implementation of carbon capture and storage. ISTC is also developing a Center for Carbon Utilization on the University of Illinois campus.

“The goal is to not only evaluate technologies, but also demonstrate how communities may be able to monetize captured CO2,” said Kevin OBrien. The effort provides a unique opportunity to create jobs and build new markets, he said.

conference participants
CCUS experts from around the world gathered in Calabria, Italy this week to explore ways to speed the implementation of carbon capture, utilization, and storage.

Small companies save big with tech advice

Technical assistance available for small, rural businesses.
Manufacturers in smaller towns and cities of Illinois can get help being more profitable and sustainable through ISTC’s Illinois Conservation of Resources and Energy (ICORE) program.

 

A model program to provide technical assistance services to underserved rural areas of Illinois has generated $24 million in savings of energy, water, and waste over its first eight years.

 

In smaller, rural communities technical assistance professionals usually have a more difficult time identifying companies that would benefit from their services. ICORE takes a grassroots approach to identify partners and stakeholders with contacts at municipalities, organizations, associations and agencies. Networking at the local level spreads the word of the potential benefits of third-party business assessments.

 

“In big urban areas it is easy enough to find companies that will benefit from sustainability improvements that will save them money,” said Mike Springman, who with fellow ISTC environmental engineer Dan Marsch, have delivered ICORE, which stands for Illinois Conservation of Resources and Energy, services from the beginning. “We wanted to find a way to share what we offer to the whole state, in particular businesses located in rural communities.”

 

ICORE offers customized assessments resulting in recommendations to conserve energy, reduce water consumption, reduce hazardous materials/wastes, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and save money.  At two recent assessments at Illinois food companies, a range of recommendations were identified , such as improved efficiencies in compressed air, process heat, motors, lighting, water/wastewater and minimization of food waste.

 

Caseyville’s AdvancePierre Foods implemented more than half of the recommendations, some right after the site visit. “Very good information and details emerged from the audit, which we are still working on,” said Michael Doeden, plant manager of the company’s St. Clair County facility. “It is a great way to start a foundation for continuous improvement and cost savings.”

 

Upgrading old electrical equipment is saving the company $6,000 a month, Doeden said. Other ideas like metering for waste water sewage credits will be adopted down the line, he added.

 

King’s Food Products in Belleville, Ill., welcomed the assessment for third-party expertise on how to be more efficient. “The assessment … generated a list of task items we hadn’t considered,” said Stephanie Fahrner, vice president for operations. “Overall the project/participation will improve us as a company — through savings, efficiency, and employee and environmental safety.”

 

“This is a great way for your team to see ideas generated, resources available, and training provided to help continuous improvement in a manufacturing plant,” Doeden agreed. “Additionally, E3 assessments focus on economy, energy and environment … which will benefit sustainability programs, people and is a good foundation for business practices, he added.”

 

In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in partnership with five other federal agencies formed the E3 technical assistance framework (Economy, Energy, and Environment). One year later EPA started funding the ICORE approach which has taken hold and today has expanded to deliver EPA’s E3 assessments as well.

 

One way of viewing the impact of the program is as accumulated savings which continue to accrue each year. By this measure, between 2008 and 2016, ICORE assistance has made a difference in Illinois totaling approximately $24 million, 160 million gallons of water, 1.9 million therms of natural gas, 209 million kilowatt hours of electricity, 20 million pounds of waste, 433,000 pounds of hazardous waste, and 200,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions avoided.

 

For more information about ICORE/E3 assessments for your business, visit the technical assistance pages at http://istc.illinois.edu/

 

 

Army to pilot ISTC innovation to improve installation resilience, energy security

waste water treatment plant energy recovery
The U.S. Army will pilot a U of I waste to energy system that converts wastewater biosolids to biocrude oil. The design benefits include removal of many bioactive pollutants and a high efficiency of energy extraction.

 

The U.S. Army has funded a project to demonstrate technology developed on the University of Illinois’ South Farm that disposes of wastewater biosolids by turning them into energy.

 

The Army has embraced a range of innovations in its Net Zero program, which strives for zero waste and clean, on-site, renewable energy sources. Two areas where the Army still pays for landfill disposal are food waste and wastewater biosolids.

 

The U of I system will be demonstrated over a two-month period at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Maryland, where Net Zero team members will document the effectiveness of this approach to improve the environmental footprint and enhance resiliency at Army installations. Fort Detrick has been designated to be an Army pilot installation for Net Zero energy and waste initiatives.

 

The pilot-scale reactor developed by university personnel from Agricultural and Biological Engineering and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute, converts these organic materials into biofuels through a hydrothermal process.

 

Instead of expending energy to sterilize and break down organic wastes for landfilling, the one ton per day reactor can produce 3 million BTUs of heat energy, which corresponds to 300 kilowatt-hours of electricity each day. In addition, instead of expending energy to dry the feedstocks, as in most biofuel processes, wet feedstocks are essential to the reaction.

 

“In a hostile theatre, it is dangerous to supply fuel by truck to run electric generators,” said Lance Schideman, the researcher who has led the development efforts at ISTC. “The ability to supply renewable energy on-post promotes readiness and minimizes its environmental impact,” he added.

 

“The system’s small size and portability also make the approach appealing for deployment at military installations here and abroad,” said Stephen Cosper, an engineer with the Army’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory who has spent a sabbatical year collaborating with researchers at ISTC.

 

Upcoming Environmental Conference

Biologists testing water of natural river

Rising concerns among environmental scientists over a multitude of contaminants found in water and aquatic life and their impact on human health have prompted ISTC to partner with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant to host an upcoming conference titled, “Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment.” The two-day conference will be packed with many experts, including four keynote presentations by researchers from the U.S.EPA, Loyola University Chicago, USGS, and the National Sea Grant Law Center. The oral presentations will cover a variety of viewpoints, namely research, policy, and education & outreach.

 

Contaminants of emerging concern, as defined by the USGS, are

“…any synthetic or naturally occurring chemical or any microorganism that is not commonly monitored in the environment but has the potential to enter the environment and cause known or suspected adverse ecological and (or) human health effects.”

 

In some cases, a contaminant could have been entering the environment for decades or centuries but only recently has been detected or environmental impacts been attributed to that compound. Some of the contaminants that will be discussed at the conference include pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medicines, personal care products, agrichemicals, microplastics, coal-tar sealants, flame retardants, and many more.

 

Government leaders, policy makers, public health professionals, researchers, environmental organizations, educators, students, and members of the public are all encouraged to attend the conference. It will provide an opportunity for discussion and collaboration with those from a wide range of fields in research, policy, and education & outreach. The conference will be held from May 31 to June 1, 2017, at the I Hotel & Conference Center in Champaign, IL.

Visit the website to find out more information, meet the keynote speakers, register for the conference, or submit a poster abstract on your work.

Tiny Scavenger Proves Apex Predator in Oil Spill Clean Up

nano-carboscavenger particles are small
Two-layered Nano-CarboScavengers have properties to both clump oil spill sheen and disperse them for bacterial digestrion.

When there is an oil spill in a body of water, booms are used to contain it so the contamination can be collected. The aftermath still leaves a sheen of oil that response teams then attempt to keep from devastating the natural environment.

What do they do? They dump chemicals into the water which may be as bad environmentally as the oil.

Enter engineers and chemists from the University of Illinois College of Engineering and ISTC with a new tool to more truly eliminate the damage from oil spills. They have developed microscopic carbon particles they call Nano-CarboScavengers which work in two ways. They have the ability to attract oil and swell in size, creating visible clumps which can be scooped up. The tiny spheres also reduce the surface tension of polluted water, giving natural microorganisms a chance to digest petroleum compounds into harmless components.

Let’s hear it for the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) which showed confidence in Bioengineer Dipanjan Pan and the team to provide them with seed money to develop the idea in 2015. Now the work is published in Nature Publishing. iSEE’s website has the full story.

Emerging Contaminants in Our Aquatic Environments

pill bottle spilling out pills with one big pill colored with the pattern of earth's suface specifically north americaAmericans landfilled 136 million tons of material in 2014. Food, plastics, and in fact, most of what was landfilled could have been recycled or composted. Of particular concern is the more than four percent of waste classified as ‘other,’ which includes pharmaceuticals and personal-care products.

 

A recent article, “Pharmaceuticals and Other Chemicals Common in Landfill Waste,” brings light to the fact that rain water filtering through a landfill picks up chemicals and exits the landfill as ‘leachate.’ While treatment of the leachate and NPDES permitting is required, questions about how these chemicals affect the environment still remain.

 

The USGS sampled 19 landfill leachates before treatment and found 129 different pharmaceutical (prescription and non-prescription), household, and industrial chemicals. The three chemicals detected in 95 percent of the samples were bisphenol A (used in plastics, thermal paper, and epoxy resins; 4 parts per million), DEET (insect repellent; 250 parts per billion), and cotinine (transformation product of nicotine; 50 parts per billion).

 

In order to help address some of these questions and many more, ISTC is partnering with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) to host the “Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference” on May 31 and June 1, 2017, in Champaign, IL. Conference registration will begin in mid-February. Topics will include research, policy, management, outreach, and education concerning emerging contaminant detection, fate, transport, remediation, prevention, or related areas.

 

Resources

Biobased Lubricants Improving, Gaining Favor in Natural Workzones

distilled bio-crude yields fractions which have lubricant properties
Senior Research Engineer B.K. Sharma displays a number of bio-crude fractions he uses to create replacements for petroleum lubricants.

 

Non-petroleum biobased machine lubricants are an increasingly important strategy for preventing pollution in environmentally sensitive work places, such as for forest, agricultural, and marine applications. The new book Environmentally Friendly and Biobased Lubricants by Brajendra K. Sharma and Girma Biresaw, published by CRC Press, focuses on innovations in this promising area.

 

Eco-friendly machine lubricants made from vegetable oil are a growing niche in the +$150 billion global lubricants industry. Biobased lubricants are preferred for machines used in total-loss applications (in which the lubrication oils are lost to the environment) because they are renewable, have low ecotoxicity, and are biodegradable when they enter the environment.

 

They possess good performance properties, such as having lower volatility, higher flash points, higher viscosity indexes, and better boundary lubricant properties, compared with petroleum lubricants, according to Sharma, a senior researcher at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

The book surveys researchers’ growing success in producing designer molecules that reduce heat and minimize friction as well as or better than their petroleum-derived counterparts. Sharma and Biresaw, a research chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Peoria (ARS), have synthesized the broad body of current research in their book.

 

book: Environmentally Friendly and Biobased LubricantsBiobased lubricants are not likely to replace petroleum completely, Sharma said. Bio-lubricants today are scarcely one percent of the total market demand for lubricants, but their annual demand is growing at a rate of 16 percent per year, compared with the two percent annual demand growth for petroleum versions. “But in applications where lubricants are likely to be lost to the environment, these products are taking a firm hold in the marketplace,” he said.

 

Using heat and enzymes, researchers strip double bonds from molecules, add new elements, attach branches, or join two molecules together to mimic the properties of petroleum lubricants. They are now finding ways to overcome persistent weaknesses of bio-lubricants, including poor oxidative stability and poor low-temperature flow properties.

 

Some of the best results leading to commercial products are obtained from processing the fatty acids present in vegetable oils. Estolide lubricants developed at the Agricultural Research Service laboratory solve many of the negatives of raw vegetable oils—excellent lubricity, low-temperature performance, oxidative stability, and biodegradability. In addition to lubrication, estolides are being evaluated for use in food applications, cosmetics, cooling fluids, and inks.

 

Other naturally derived fatty acid compounds under study for lubricant applications include epoxidized oil, vegetable oil diesters, and isostearic acids, according to Sharma. The increasing interest in eco-friendly lubricants is also good news for farmers in the Midwest who grow the raw materials, he added.

 

Most studies have shown that canola oil will produce the best overall characteristics for bio-lubricants, but corn, soybean, and rapeseed oils are also widely used. Another biologic crop — sugar cane — is taking a far different path to lubrication. Amyris Inc. is commercializing its renewable hydrocarbon farnesene, made with cane sugar and a bioengineered yeast, to produce hydrocarbons for jet fuel, lubricants, and many other uses.

 

Sharma is currently designing renewable bio-additives to improve the performance characteristics of eco-friendly lubricants. Just as with petroleum lubricants, additives are blended to improve the lubricity, oxidative stability, friction, wear, and corrosion resistance of the base material.

 

Sharma’s latest patent is for a new molecule of fatty acid chemically modified with boron to produce an antiwear, antifriction additive for vegetable oil-based lubricants. As Sharma continues to build new shapes for plant-derived molecules in the laboratory, he said his goal is to develop a single additive that optimizes all the critical properties of sustainable and renewable lubricants.