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The National Academies
500 5th St NW - KWS 502
Washington, DC 20001
Tel: (202) 334-2800
Fax: (202) 334-2139
Phase 4 (2009 Deadline)
Solid Waste Management for Bioenergy Production
William J. Orts, US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service
Romana Tabassum, National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering
Pakistani Funding (HEC): $257,000
US Funding (Department of State): $200,000
Project Dates: October 1, 2011 - September 30, 2014 (Extended through March 14, 2014)
This multidisciplinary project will develop new technology for converting waste into renewable energy, potentially helping to reduce Pakistan’s reliance on petroleum imports as well as the costs of waste treatment. Researchers from USDA and NIBGE will work together to study ways of producing biomethane gas and ethanol from agricultural biomass, industrial waste (including office waste, newsprint, and packaging), and municipal solid waste (MSW). The US principal investigator Dr. Orts is currently involved in operating a pilot-scale MSW-to-bioenergy conversion facility in California; however, this operation has yet to fully integrate the simultaneous production of ethanol and biomethane that is planned for the current project. This new joint project will also look at how different types of waste pretreatments such as enzymes and autoclaving affect relative yields of ethanol versus biomethane. Furthermore, ideal enzyme mixtures must be developed for the types of comingled waste streams typical in Pakistan. By demonstrating the potential environmental and economic benefits of improved waste processing methods, this team ultimately hopes to transfer the technology developed to the private sector for commercialization.
Ms. Tanveer Majeed, a graduate student from Dr. Tabassum’s lab in Faisalabad, arrived January 2013 for a six month training in the U.S. lab. She is working under the direction of Dr. Charles Lee and William Orts and started research to clone and characterize an alkaline thermostable protease (protein-degrading) enzyme from a Bacillus licheniformis strain. This strain was isolated from Pakistan because it has particularly interesting properties for biomass pretreatment – converting waste material into simple sugars. The Bacillus strain was purified in the Faisalabad lab and the resulting protease enzyme was fully characterized. Research in California included cloning the particular gene responsible for the protease enzyme and then characterizing the recombinant enzyme. Ms. Majeed and Dr. Lee are also developing other strains in case the cloning is not optimized from the original strain. In the Pakistan labs of Dr. Tabassum research continues on samples of lignocellulosic wastes. These samples were then sent to California for further characterization by electron microscopy and chemical/spectral analysis.
The pilot-scale digestor will be finished in the next nine months including initial test runs. Lab work on enzyme development, microbe improvement, and biomass pretreatment methods will continue. Arrangements are being made for another graduate student, Nagina Rafique, from the Faisalabad lab to join Dr. Lee in his lab. Collaborative research will continue especially focusing on enzymes that breakdown pectin- useful in both the biofuels and food industries.
The biggest impediment for face-to-face meetings has been the fact that USDA researchers have not been allowed to visit Pakistan as part of their official duties. Dr. Orts and his colleagues were invited to participate in joint workshops in Pakistan, to meet their collaborators, however, the USDA travel office has not permitted these trips.
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This project was selected for support as part of the Phase 4 review process, the results of which were announced in September 2010. However, the project remained on hold for a year until funding resources could be secured on both the Pakistani and US sides. Once those resources were in place, the project was launched on the U.S. side as of late October 2011 when Dr. Orts’ lab signed off on the grant agreement and received the Year 1 funds. Of the ten major objectives outlined in the project plan, Dr. Orts reports that work has been initiated on at least seven, with activities being conducted by the PIs on both sides. The USDA lab has assembled and begun utilizing a new set of fermentors that have been established to test the protocols established in this project. Various types of solid waste biomass is being studied, including waste paper, municipal solids waste, food wastes (including sub-par fruits and vegetables), agricultural processing residues, and grass clippings. Research on almond hulls and shells is proving particularly effective. Considering that almonds are a common biomass source for both the United States and Pakistan, it is noteworthy that fermentation of almond shells and hulls is proving to be viable.
During the spring and summer of 2012, a pilot-scale anaerobic digestor to be used by both parties for their joint work in California will be designed and manufactured. Plans are for this system to be ready in the fall of 2012. This will make it possible to carry out larger-scale tests of the viability of bioenergy production from waste sources encountered in both Pakistan and the United States. Dr. Orts and his staff have completed the necessary visa invitation and lab clearance paperwork to host a member of the Pakistani research team in California sometime in 2012, as soon as the visitor’s visa is issued.
In consultation with Dr. Kevin Holtman of the USDA-Albany lab, Dr. Tabassum is revising the final specifications to purchase items needed to construct a key piece of equipment for the project—a 50 cubic meter anaerobic digester. This pilot-scale digester should be installed and optimized during the next six months. During the spring and summer of 2012, her group at NIBGE has initiated studies on using corn stover (leaves and stalks remaining after harvest) as a substrate, although there have been some difficulties in grinding the stover to make a powder suitable for digestion studies. Using lawn grass clippings has proven more fruitful so far. Dr. Tabassum has also consulted with Dr. Charles Lee from the USDA-Albany lab regarding gene sequencing and DNA primer synthesis relevant to the enzyme research aspects of the project, and USDA-Albany staff have prepared and delivered specific DNA primers to the Pakistani side.
Dr. Tabassum is currently working with Dr. Orts on visa arrangements for her student Tanveer Majeed, who will come to the USDA-Albany lab for training later in 2012. In the new few months, the team will continue the enzyme cloning research, which is expected to progress more quickly once the student arrives at the USDA lab. Meantime, the pace of research on anaerobic digestion should also increase once the new pilot-scale digester is up and running at NIBGE.
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