Waste not: Capture platform recycles the world’s biggest polluters

Summary

A platform launched by UGent is about to get a dedicated building for its work to recycle waste by-products, including CO2 and nitrogen

Saving the planet

Most people think the only way to stop carbon dioxide poisoning the planet is to limit emissions. But a platform launched by Ghent University (UGent) is developing methods of capturing those emissions and using them to create new products.

The platform is, appropriately, called Capture, and it is made up of a variety of members from industry and technology who want to do one – or more – of three things: buy waste, sell waste or create processes to turn this industrial and domestic waste into new products.

“The Capture platform is an open collaboration on the theme of resource recovery,” explains Korneel Rabaey, a professor of biotechnology at UGent.

Capture is a one-stop shop for utilising waste by-products. “If a company wants to convert CO2 or a gas by-product into an organic product,” says Rabaey, “it needs to find an expert in purifying the gasses, it needs to find an expert in turning CO2 into a useful product, it needs to find someone who can extract that product and process it … and then somebody has to bring it to the market. In Capture, we can bring together everyone involved along the line.”

As Rabaey talks, it becomes more and more clear just how life altering such a process could become. If it appears to be impossible to get the west to consume less, scientists can at least figure out how to harness waste products and re-use them.

From sewage to animal feed

Key wastes, he says, are CO2, sewage and plastics. “With recovered CO2,” he says, “we can make plastic and fuels, both for cars and aircraft.”

In terms of wastewater, Capture is looking to recover nitrogen and phosphorous. The sewers are full of both.

“Everybody is very aware of the massive environmental footprint of meat production,” says Rabaey. “That has to do with how we manufacture meat. We produce nitrogen by plucking it from the air, using a lot of energy, to make fertiliser. We ship the fertiliser to Brazil or to Indonesia to grow soy– which uses a lot of agricultural land – then we harvest the soy and ship it back to Europe. Then we feed it to animals. Most of what goes into animal feed is soy.”

If we can harvest nitrogen from wastewater and turn it into protein, we could fully replace all soy imports

- Professor Korneel Rabaey

At every step of the way, he says, there’s a loss of energy and of nitrogen. “In the end, only 4% of that nitrogen that was produced chemically ends up as meat on your plate.”

In Europe’s wastewater, “there is twice the amount of nitrogen available than there is in all the soy that we’re importing. So if we can harvest that nitrogen and turn it into protein, we could fully replace all soy imports. And that has a massive impact.”

This is the kind of circular economy that Capture is striving to create. “We pluck the nitrogen from the water, we turn it into feed, it goes to the animal, we eat the animal, the waste ends up in the wastewater, and the circle is round.”

Reducing corporate risk

Capture can also lend to the health of the local economy by helping corporations to spread their risk. Ghent-based steel and chemicals producer ArcelorMittal, for instance, is exploring how to create new products with its CO2 waste.

“They can make these products and sell them at a sufficient market value,” says Rabaey. “That’s a new business. It’s a smart approach because, you know, steel prices can fluctuate, chemical prices can fluctuate, but it would be nearly impossible for the price of all the products that they make to decrease at the same time.”

ArcelorMittal could also just sell its CO2 waste to a company that makes products from it. “It has so much CO2, that it could conceivably do both.”

It would be nearly impossible for the price of all the products that they make to decrease at the same time

- Korneel Rabaey

Capture has been building up its network for more than two years with multiple partners, including the chemicals support network Catalisti. Recently, it announced a milestone: a dedicated building, funded by the Flemish government, the EU, IIC UGent, UGent and the province of East Flanders.

It’s very important to also bring things together physically,” says Rabaey. “These are different pieces of infrastructure, so you need to bring all that expertise together in one place and make it very visible.”

Construction of the 7,000 square-metre building in the Zwijnaarde Technology Park starts in mid-2018, and it is scheduled to open in the spring of 2020.

Photo courtesy Aquafin

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Ghent University

Ghent University (UGent) is one of Flanders’ most pluralistic and liberal institutions of higher education, and its motto has long been “dare to think”. UGent is renowned for its research in bio and life sciences.
Latin - UGent was originally founded as a Latin-speaking state university by the Dutch king William I.
Nobel - Corneel Heymans, the only Fleming to have won a Nobel Prize, studied at the university.
Autonomy - UGent is the largest employer in East Flanders.
410

million euros in annual revenue

1 882

first female student admitted

1 930

Dutch becomes university’s official language