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Craft breweries bet on algae technology

March 7, 2016

Michigan State University doctoral candidate Jakob Nalley is working with Bell’s Brewery Inc. to study ways to use brewery wastewater to produce algae and turn it into biofuels.

Michigan State University doctoral candidate Jakob Nalley is working with Bell’s Brewery Inc. to study ways to use brewery wastewater to produce algae and turn it into biofuels.

J dropcapohn Wiegand writes for that, as the craft brewing industry matures, many West Michigan producers have started seeking out technology that provides sustainable solutions to common issues. Brewers’ lean manufacturing experience has positioned them to be more willing to invest in energy- and resource-saving technologies, for everything from energy capture and waste reduction to solar energy and biodigesters.

That has led to opportunities for scientists and entrepreneurs working to develop those cutting-edge sustainable technologies.

One of them is Jakob Nalley, a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station, in Hickory Corners, who is developing a process to use wastewater produced by breweries to grow algae.

Since brewery wastewater is full of yeast, spent grain and other organic matter and nutrients, it provides an ideal environment for algae to grow, according to Mr. Nalley. “If we can grow algae from a wastewater source, we can offer a benefit to industry by taking that nutrient out of the wastewater basically for free,” he said. “Then ultimately you have a value product at the end of this whole system.”

For his research, Mr. Nalley partnered with Galesburg-based Bell’s Brewery to collect and run experiments on the company’s wastewater.

Mr. Nalley said that his research could have myriad benefits for craft brewers. On one hand, water usage has become an increasing concern for breweries, which strive to reduce water consumption from 30 gallons to 10 gallons for every gallon of beer, he said. Since algae feeds on the nitrogen, phosphorus and other matter in the wastewater, brewers could treat their own water and recycle it back into their operations, saving them money.

At the same time, brewers could also use refined biofuel generated from the algae to power their generators, Mr. Nalley said. “If (breweries) could make that biodiesel on site and make it for all of their energy needs, that could be pretty impressive.”

Mr. Nalley’s research, which is advised by Dr. Elena Litchman of MSU, underscores a trend that sees craft brewers investing in sustainable technology ranging from energy capture to waste reduction.

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