15 May 2024

Homes heated by human sewage could be a reality thanks to university project

Aston uni sewage.jpeg

An Aston University project that could transform sewage sludge into clean water and energy has been awarded a share of £4.5 million by Ofwat.

The university project with engineering consultancy ICMEA-UK involves extracting energy from the waste produced during sewage and water treatment and transforming it into hydrogen and/or methane.

The gases can then be used to power engines or heat people’s homes. The aim is to create a sustainable and cost-efficiently run wastewater processes, plus extra energy.

The initiative was one of ten winners of Ofwat’s Water Discovery Challenge, of which the Aston University scientists and two industrial partners have been awarded £427,000.

Dr Jude Onwudili based at Aston University’s Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute (EBRI) is leading the team of scientists who will work with the partners to develop a trial rig to transform solid residues from wastewater treatment plants to hydrogen and/or methane.

The two-stage process will involve the initial transformation of organic components in the sludge into liquid intermediates, which will then be converted to the fuel gases in a second stage.

The project is called REvAR (Renewable Energy via Aqueous-phase Reforming), and Dr Onwudili will be working with lead partner and engineering consultancy company ICMEA-UK Limited and sustainable infrastructure company Costain. 

REVAR combines the use of hot-pressurised water or hydrothermal conditions with catalysts to achieve high conversion efficiency. The technique can treat sewage sludge in just minutes, and it is hoped that it will replace existing processes. In 2013, a Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management report stated that the sector is the fourth most energy intensive industry in the UK. 

Dr Onwudili said: “This project is important because millions of tonnes of sewage sludge are generated in the UK each year and the water industry is struggling with how to effectively manage them as waste. 

“Instead, they can be converted into valuable feedstocks which are used for producing renewable fuel gases, thereby increasing the availability of feedstocks to meet UK decarbonisation targets through bioenergy.

“We will be taking a waste product and recovering two important products from it: clean water and renewable energy. Overall, the novel technology will contribute towards meeting UK Net Zero obligations by 2050 and ties in with the University’s purpose to make our world a better place through education, research and innovation.”

The Water Discovery Challenge aims to accelerate the development and adoption of promising new innovations for the water sector. Over the next six months, winners will also receive non-financial support and will be able to pitch their projects to potential water company partners and/or investors.

The 10 winning teams are from outside the water industry and were chosen because of their projects’ potential to help solve the biggest challenges facing the sector.   

The competition is part of the Ofwat Innovation Fund, run by the water regulator Ofwat, with Challenge Works, Arup and Isle Utilities and is the first in the water sector to invite ideas from innovators across industries. 

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