Recycling waste into valuable products
BREVARD COUNTY • MELBOURNE, FLORIDA – With a rapidly growing world population already over 8 billion people, the world faces two significant challenges in its immediate future: waste abatement and global warming.
My research group at Florida Tech applies fundamental chemical engineering concepts to recover energy and value-added products from unwanted wet and dry waste. This is a win-win situation for the community, the industry and the environment.
Our targeted waste includes municipal solid waste (MSW), human waste, agricultural waste and plastic waste.
Along with the environmental benefits, these particular wastes provide favorable process economics, as they are all what we call “negative value raw materials”. This means that waste generators pay us in the form of a “tipping fee” to dispose/use their waste.
When it comes to recycling waste, there is no “one size fits all” technology. We need to understand the source, quality, composition, variability and availability of waste to offer value-added applications.
For example, MSWs are rich in organic matter, but they are also moist and heterogeneous. At Florida Tech, we are transforming MSW into renewable natural gas and activated carbon as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) project.
Renewable natural gas can be injected into a gas pipeline, which will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Highly porous functionalized activated carbons have shown enormous potential to capture carbon dioxide. We believe that adding value to waste could potentially divert MSW from landfills.
Eutrophication, or excessive nutrient richness of a body of water, is thought to be a major contributor to harmful algal blooms (HABs), and improper disposal of animal manure and human waste often leads to eutrophication.
With funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Sugar Bush Foundation, we have developed a new technology called “hydrothermal treatment”, which recovers nutrients. This way we are less dependent on inorganic fertilizers and can potentially close the nutrient cycle loop and prevent HABs in the long run.
However, HABs are already a threat to the Florida coast, as well as the Great Lakes. To control HABs in the short term, we study the efficiency of biochar on the adsorption of HAB species and the corresponding toxins.
Our research efforts to control and mitigate HAB outbreaks have been funded by the USDA, US Environmental Protection Agency, and Florida Sea Grant.
Plastic waste is undoubtedly a major threat to the environment. Although recycling has improved dramatically in recent years, most plastics are still not recyclable.
Our research group has developed a chemical recycling process called solvothermal conversion, where these plastics are depolymerized into monomers, chemicals and fuels. SolvX is versatile and can accept mixed plastics as well as contaminated plastics. SolvX could be a game-changer and have a potential impact on plastic waste remediation.
In our research group, we believe that “waste” is “resources”. With the right technologies, they can be recycled into value-added products. With limited global resources, we need to close the “waste loops” to leave a better world for future generations.
Toufiq Reza is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering and Science and is among the top 2% of researchers in the world, according to the 2021 Stanford Report. His research focuses on turning waste into energy and materials.
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