Perfect waste of beer and wine: Engineering students work to turn alcohol byproducts into fuel

Perfect waste of beer and wine: Engineering students work to turn alcohol byproducts into fuel

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Engineering students at Rowan University are interested in wineries and breweries.

But it’s not what you think.

From waste to fuel

The 10 civil and environmental engineering students working with Rowan alumna and assistant professor Dr. Sarah Bauer aren’t exploring taste – they’re studying the waste products created during the fermentation and brewing processes and the possibility of converting them into liquid biocrude, a renewable fuel source.

Beginning last fall, students identified local wineries and microbreweries from which to collect and analyze waste, choosing Auburn Road Vineyard in Pilesgrove, Death of the Fox Brewing Co. in Clarksboro and Kelly Green Brewing Co. in Pitman.

From there, Bauer and her students toured the facilities of each winery and brewery, learning about the processes of creating wine and beer. 

ID the materials

“Our goal was to first identify the type of materials that are used in the fermentation and brewing processes, as well as the quality and quantity of waste materials produced as a byproduct of these processes,” Bauer said. 

Back in the lab in Rowan Hall, students in Bauer’s engineering clinic teams measured the quantity and analyzed the makeup of the spent grains, hops and lees, byproducts of the beer- and wine-making. Through hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), students processed the waste products at a high temperature and pressure in a reactor to produce a liquid biocrude. Bauer previously used this technology in her doctoral research completed at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Results from the more recent work at Rowan continue to be encouraging.

“This waste-to-energy system has the potential to produce a renewable and environmentally friendly source of energy that uses waste that would otherwise be seen as an environmental or economic liability as a feedstock,” Bauer explained. “This is the bigger picture of our research.”

The memory of driving through acres of vineyards as a child while visiting his father in California inspired Remo DiSalvatore, 20, of Washington Township (Gloucester County), a rising senior and a member of the brewery research team, to join Bauer’s engineering clinic. Knowing there could be an alternative use for the waste products generated from the beer and wine industries — an area largely untouched by scientific research — intrigued him.

Innovative research

“There have been studies of millions of other things, but no one’s really focused on the things we’re doing,” said DiSalvatore, a graduate of Washington Township High School. “It’s exciting because we’re cutting edge. We’re the first people to try to do this.”

This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed. This spring, students presented their research at the Engineering Sustainability 2019 Conference sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and the Steinbrenner Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The students’ thesis outlining their research from the fall 2018 semester also won the Best Undergraduate Student Paper Award as part of the 2019 Delaware Valley Engineers Week.

“It’s nice that the work that we’re doing is actually seen by other people and recognized as something that could potentially be really helpful for our future,” said rising senior Gina Venuto-Gabriella, 20, a member of the winery research team.

Gaining an education and experience

Venuto-Gabriella, of Blackwood, credits Rowan’s engineering clinic sequence as an integral part of her engineering education and a way to gain real-world experience. Because Bauer’s clinic is hands-on for the students, Venuto and her classmates will walk away with great exposure to industry research practices.

“Before junior year, not many people have internships, so this is our first opportunity to do something that could really count,” the Highland Regional High School graduate said. “Choosing a project that is important to the world is really special.”

Bauer and her students will continue their research during the 2019-2020 school year, expanding their scope to identify and analyze waste created by local farms and wastewater treatment plants for a potential source of liquid biocrude, again focusing on major industries within the South Jersey economy.

Though the students are currently working on a small scale, this work is important for optimizing the HTL process and developing environmentally friendly ways to utilize waste products.