New research shows that sewage contains a source of energy that can be harvested by using hungry bacteria.
Domestic sewage contains various organic substances, mainly from toilets and kitchens. These are harmful to the environment, but also contain energy. Researchers from Ghent University discovered how to efficiently extract this energy from the wastewater.
Researcher dr. Francis Meerburg (Center for Microbial Ecology and Technology): “The levels of organic matter in sewage are too low to be directly recovered. We investigated how we can use bacteria to capture this material. Our approach is unique because we have developed a high-rate variation of the so-called contact-stabilization process.”
Professor Nico Boon: “We periodically starve the bacteria, in a kind of ‘fasting regimen’. Afterwards, wastewater is briefly brought into contact with the starved bacteria which are gluttonous and gobble up the organic matter without ingesting all of it. This enables us to harvest the undigested materials for the production of energy and high-quality products. We starve the rest of the bacteria, so that they can purify fresh sewage again. ”
Energy neutral wastewater treatment
By using the contact-stabilization process, up to 55% of the organic matter could be recovered from sewage. This is a huge step forward, because the existing processes cannot recover more than 20 to 30%. The researchers calculated that this amount can provide sufficient amounts of energy to completely treat sewage without the need for external electricity.
“This is an important step in the direction of wastewater treatment that is energy neutral, or even produces energy,” Professor Siegfried Vlaeminck said.
Learn more: Binge-eating bacteria extract energy from sewage
The ability to self-repair damaged tissue is one of the key features that define living organisms. Plants in particular are regeneration champions, a quality that has been used for centuries in horticultural techniques such as grafting. Belgian scientists from VIB and Ghent University have now discovered a key protein complex that controls plant tissue repair.
Understanding this mechanism is of great agricultural importance: crops and edible plants might be cultivated more efficiently and made more resistant to parasitic plants. The results are published in the leading journal Nature Plants.
In humans and animals, missing or damaged tissue can be replenished by stem cells. These basic, undifferentiated cells can change into more specific cell types and divide to produce new cells that replace the damaged tissue cells. Plants are characterized by a similar system, but their regenerative properties are generally much greater. While this asset has been widely used in grafting and plant tissue culture techniques, the mechanism by which cells are triggered to form new cells after injury remained largely elusive.
A team led by professor Lieven De Veylder (VIB-Ghent University) uncovered a novel protein complex controlling tissue repair in plants. One dead plant cell is sufficient to send a signal to the surrounding cells, which activates the protein complex. As a result, these neighboring cells are triggered to divide in such a way that the newly produced cells can replace the dead ones.
Prof. De Veylder (VIB-Ghent University): “There are also a lot of plants and crops that don’t have such swift repair systems, such as rice, wheat, corn, bananas and onions. By fully understanding this regeneration system, we might be able to induce it in those kinds of plants, thereby increasing cultivation efficiency. The same goes for grafting, which is employed in the wine and fruit industries, among others. Our findings may help to drastically reduce graft failure rate.”
Harvesting the fruits of evolution
A new ecological strategy to counter parasitic plants is another potential future application of the study’s results. These organisms, accounting for approximately 1% of flowering plants, are actually grafts that are able to grow through the mechanism described by the research project. In time, scientists may be able to block the natural grafting of these parasites onto economically important crops.
Prof. De Veylder (VIB-Ghent University): “Our findings illustrate how science can capitalize on the mechanisms of evolution. After all, nature has gradually developed solutions to nearly every biological problem. As scientists, it is our duty to get to the bottom of how these processes function and apply them to the benefit of society. As follow-up steps, we will check whether our results can be extrapolated to crops such as corn, and try to figure out the signals that activate the protein complex.”
Ghent University (Dutch: Universiteit Gent, abbreviated as UGent) is a Dutch-speaking public university located in Ghent, Belgium.
It is one of the larger Flemish universities, consisting of 38,000 students and 7,900 staff members. The current rector is Anne De Paepe (nl).
It was established in 1817 by King William I of the Netherlands. After the Belgian revolution of 1830, it was administered by the newly formed Belgian state. French became the academic language until 1930, when Ghent University became the first Dutch-speaking university in Belgium. In 1991, the university was granted major autonomy and changed its name from State University of Ghent (Dutch: Rijksuniversiteit Gent, abbreviated as RUG) to its current name.
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The idea behind it is over 100 years old
DYSPROSIUM and neodymium are not exactly the best-known elements in the periodic table, but for makers of high-end electric motors they have become vital. Both are strongly magnetic and thus crucial to the construction of powerful motors of the sort used, for example, in electric cars. Unfortunately, they lurk in the part of the table known as the rare-earth metals and, as that name suggests, workable deposits of them are scarce. At the moment, the main source of supply is in China, whose government has used its near-monopoly to restrict availability and push up the price. So there is a lot of interest in inventing motors that can do without them. And several groups of researchers think they have come up with one.
The device in question is known as a switched reluctance motor. The idea behind it is over 100 years old, but making a practical high-performance version suitable for vehicles has not been possible until recently. A combination of new motor designs and the advent of powerful, fast-switching semiconductor chips, which can be used to build more sophisticated versions of the electronic control systems required to operate a reluctance motor, is giving those motors a new spin.
One of the leading contenders is Inverto, a research and development company based in Ghent, Belgium. Inverto’s engineers, led by John De Clercq, the firm’s research director, are collaborating with the University of Ghent and the University of Surrey, in Britain, and also with an unnamed carmaker. They already have a motor running in a car. At Newcastle University, also in Britain, researchers are working with several companies to produce reluctance motors for both cars and lorries. And studies are being carried out in America and Japan too. A team led by Nobukazu Hoshi of the Tokyo University of Science, for example, has experimented with a reluctance motor in a Mazda sports car.