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[en] Full text: First there was the Beer Battery, which aimed to generate electricity from brewery wastewater using a microbial fuel cell (MFC). Trials at Foster's Yatala brewery in Queensland in 2007 ran into challenges around the cost of electricity and duration of treatment, but they also revealed a new possibility. Komeel Rabaey, a University of Queensland specialist in microbial dynamics with a particular passion for bioelectrochemical systems, recognised the potential to extract sodium hydroxide - caustic soda - out of wastewater in a form suitable for reuse. In 2008 he converted such a system into a lab-scale caustic recovery plant, then upsized it to a one litre test reactor, which is again running at the Yatala brewery. The concept flips wastewater treatment on its head, seeing the discharge as a resource to be harvested rather than a cost and a contaminant load to be managed. “We typically aim to make a concentration of about four per cent caustic. That is what is easily achievable with the system and you will also note a lot of industries use caustic at four per cent,” said Dr Rabaey. “So you can use the wastewater from the plant to drive caustic production, with the extra advantage of removing enormous amounts of sodium.” Sodium hydroxide is a ubiquitous industrial compound used in pH regulation, as a cleaning agent in clean-in-place systems and variously in pulp and paper, textiles and food processing. Dr Rabaey wants to close the loop on caustic. Industries along the Murray-Darling basin, for example, truck in a lot of it from outside the area and then discharge it with their wastewater into the salt-sensitive river system. “If you use a bioelectrochemical system to recover the sodium hydroxide, you are not even importing the sodium into the area but recycling the sodium the whole time on-site,” he told WME. Get the technology right and he reckons a three-year payback on investment is readily achievable. A microbial fuel cell oxidises organics in the chosen medium (wastewater) and passes electrons freed up in the process around a circuit from the anode side to the cathode, generating electricity. The protons diffuse through the liquid and a membrane to the cathode, where they re-bond with the electrons and oxygen to create water, keeping the entire system neutral. Use wastewater as the medium though, and the high levels of sodium means that rather than the protons, sodium is preferentially transferred to the cathode, preventing the full reduction of oxygen to water. Instead, hydroxyl (OH) is created, which then bonds with the sodium to create sodium hydroxide (NaOH) in a continuous process. Unlike with the electricity generation trials, the theoretical capacity of the bioelectrochemical system to produce sodium hydroxide is compelling and cost-effective. “The process is pretty successful thus far. Per kilogram of organics we remove in an anode, we can think about 5kg of caustic soda on the cathode side,” said Dr Rabeay. “You need a very small number of electrons to make sodium hydroxide and the organic matter contains a lot of electrons, it is very electron-rich.” While recovery rates will vary case by case, depending on factors such as the water parameters and how companies drive their production processes, a model wastewater containing 3kg of organics and 2kg of sodium per m"3 could remove about 0.5kg of the organics, producing 2.5kg of sodium hydroxide and removing 1.44kg of sodium from the waste stream. For a pulp and paper plant, Dr Rabaey reckons 5-10 per cent of the typical organic load could provide all the site's sodium hydroxide demand. Most industries he's studied have more than enough wastewater organics to become self-sufficient in sodium hydroxide. In 2008, he co-founded Bilexys, a spin-off company from the University of Queensland aiming to commercialise the technology for recovery of caustic and, down the track, hydrogen peroxide. Early next year, Bilexys will be building a pilot plant containing several larger modules at a pulp and paper plant around Brisbane. The key tests are how well it scales up and operational controls to manage any build-up of calcium scale and solids in the reactor wastewater. All going well, Dr Rabaey hopes to go to market in 2012 with a technology that turns sodium hydroxide from a problem to a medium-term profit.