COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Mark Holtzapple, professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University, has spent the last three decades developing a method to convert biomass, such as sewage, sludge or food waste, into fuels and chemicals.
Holtzapple’s research over the last 30 years has focused on ways to address climate change associated with carbon emissions. Holtzapple said it is exceedingly crucial to transition from using coal, oil and fossil fuels for energy to more sustainable sources such as biomass – or anything that is biodegradable.
“Recently, we’ve been learning about global warming, or people becoming more aware of it, and the beauty of biofuels is that they don’t add new carbon dioxide to the environment,” Holtzapple told KXAN.
There are already several biomass sources, such as corn, sugar and vegetable oil, used to create fuels, but they are not considered to be abundant enough to be used on large scales. Holtzapple’s method uses anything biodegradable – such as sewage sludge, animal manure, agricultural residues or food scraps – which is much more plentiful and inexpensive, he said.
Holtzapple’s method is called the MixAlco process, which involves adding biomass to a plastic or concrete tank. About a month later, the biomass becomes organic acids. These organic acids can then be converted into fuel, according to Texas A&M University.
Holtapple said the first commercial plant to use his MixAlco process will start producing products in 2025. He suspects that liquid transportation fuel – for automobiles, trucks and airplanes – derived from the chemicals produced using his method is only five to 10 years away.
“I think [biomass as a fuel source] is such a great option. In fact, the only really practical option, in my opinion,” Holtzapple said.