Brewery Wastewater: A New Source of Energy

By Moira Bell


If you thought breweries were trendy now, just wait until they start making renewable energy. That is exactly what Avery Brewing and engineers from the University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder will be doing in a long-term pilot. CU Boulder engineers figured out a way to create the carbon-based materials needed to make energy storage cells using a biological organism cultivated in brewery wastewater. This is an innovative new bio-manufacturing process that could have the double benefit of reducing wastewater treatment costs for breweries and providing a more cost-effective way for creating renewable, naturally derived fuel cell technologies.

An Untapped Resource

The idea of converting biological materials or biomass into carbon-based battery electrodes is not a new concept. Some energy industry sectors are already converting timber into energy storage. The problem is obtaining naturally occurring biomass that is easy to convert. It’s usually in short supply, and even if it’s available, biomass like wastewater is expensive and difficult to optimize because it’s been over processed and filtered.

But the sugar-rich wastewater produced by a brewery is the perfect environment to cultivate the fast-growing fungus Neurospora crassa while controlling its chemical and physical processes from the beginning. The naturally derived lithium ion battery electrodes that result are the most efficiently created to date. And it doesn’t hurt that during the process, the wastewater is cleaned.

“The novelty of our process is changing the manufacturing process from top-down to bottom-up,” said Zhiyong Jason Ren, associate professor, CU Boulder. “We’re biodesigning the materials right from the start.”

On a larger scale, breweries have the potential to significantly reduce their municipal wastewater costs while manufacturers would get a cost-effective incubating medium for advanced battery technology components.

“Breweries use about seven barrels of water for every barrel of beer produced,” said Tyler Huggins, a graduate student in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and lead author of the new study. “And they can’t just dump it into the sewer because it requires extra filtration.”

To understand the larger impact, consider that California craft brewers alone use 558 million gallons of water to process beer and 93 million gallons of water to make beer each year, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Reaping the Benefits

Huggins and study co-author Justin Whiteley are hoping to commercialize the technology with the creation of their Boulder-based company, Emergy. 

They’ve also filed a patent for the process. Their partnership with Avery Brewing will allow them to try out the new process and determine its scalability.

“We see large potential for scaling because there’s nothing required in this process that isn’t already available,” said Huggins.

Brewing Innovation

Avery Brewing and the engineers at CU Boulder are not the only ones trying to turn waste into something productive. New Belgium Brewing Co. has learned how to power its 292kW combined heat and power engine using a byproduct of its wastewater cleaning process. The wastewater goes through a series of aerobic and anaerobic basins, and the methane gas produced during this process is harvested and piped to the brewery to power the engine.

For breweries looking for a premade solution, Cambrian Innovation sells the EcoVolt system, which uses a proprietary bioelectric technology to treat brewing wastewater while generating biogas energy.

Just as there seems to be an endless number of breweries and new flavors of beer cropping up lately, the opportunities to create energy from brewery wastewater continue to rise.