Bioengineering professor talks ways to reclaim energy from waste

[USA] The irony is not lost on Ron Sims, a biological engineering professor at Utah State University, that when he was a graduate student, people were trying to find ways to kill algae rather than turn it into a useful bioproducts.

Because that’s exactly the kind of thing Sims is trying to do, whether it’s in his bioenergy lab on the USU Innovation Campus in North Logan or the Sustainable Waste to Bioproducts Engineering Center, a collaboration between Logan City Environmental Department and USU.

Sim’s specialty — aside from teaching and mentoring the next generation of people in his field — is creating sustainable value bioproducts from industry byproducts and wastes.

Sims, who has worked at USU since 1982, was recently elected to College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, a group of prominent individuals in medical and biological engineering.

Sims sat down with The Herald Journal on Friday to talk about biological engineering and the work he is doing to convert waste into bioproducts.

Q: Within biological engineering, what is your main silo of research?

A: Taking residues and wastes from industries and municipalities and making valuable products. I’m trying to take a waste convert the waste into methane, biomethane and not put it in the atmosphere but contain it and use it to run engines. Any plant that can collect their waste, if I can design a reactor to take that waste and transform it into methane, they can use the methane as a source of electricity, source of heat, source of power. Then they don’t have to buy that power and electricity off the grid.

We’re also using it to make fertilizer. So we’ll take the wastewater, we’ll grow algae, microalgae … When it’s in a lake people don’t want it. I want it in a reactor to grow on the wastewater … as a source of nutrients to grow algae. … add that to compost to make a fertilizer, add the algae to a reactor to make methane, add the algae to another reactor to make bioplastics.

So what I’m trying to do is actually a take a waste and make value products.

Q: Do you think the general public, are they aware of how many of these waste products can be taken and converted into something else?

A: No, they’re not. In fact, part of this biological engineering is we have to get more word out. We have to educate the public, because it’s good things we can do taking waste and making valuable products.

I look at any waste I can find as a resource. I call it waste as a resource out of place because they don’t want it to go in the Great Salt Lake, they don’t want it to go in the rivers. … Don’t put it in the river. Give it to me and I’ll make something value-added.

Q: What would you say to the family at home about their everyday lives?

A: People have a choice — you can put it in the landfill or put it down the garbage disposal. If you put it down the garbage disposal, we can capture that waste at the treatment plant and use it to take some valuable. Whereas in the landfill, we’re going to fill up the landfill. That’s not so sustainable.

Q: Your focus is biological engineering — what is that?

A: Engineering, traditionally, has been mechanical, electrical, civil. But it has certain tools — mathematics, mechanics, analysis. In biology, it was a lot of discovery. In other words, you’re studying how reactions occur, you study how chemistry works, you study how biology works. Engineering, it tends to take that understanding and make something out of it that would benefit society.

I then wanted to take the biology … that I knew, but then put to use the tool box of mathematics, mechanics and design, so I could design reactors to take the waste and make a value product out of that.

Q: Is this field you’re working in, for lack of a better term, far out?

A: You know, it was 20 years ago when we started some of these programs.

Q: Where is it now?

A: I’d say it’s a teenager — lots of energy, lots of ideas, lots of new tools, and we’re trying to figure out where we can go with these tools.

Q: So, to borrow your metaphor, what does biological engineering look like when it’s an adult?

A: You’ll have mature bio-refineries. These are like chemical refineries now that make petroleum products. We’ll have bio-refineries using microorganisms to make value products, which could be tissues in the biomedical field, it could be biofuels, we can make bio-plastics, we can make bio-pharacuticals much cheaper and much more efficiently.


Photo: Ron Sims talks about a project that is trying to grow algae in wastewater during a tour of a lab on Friday. Eli Lucero/Herald Journal

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