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2023. 10. 10 -

Domestic wastewater will light up our homes? Young Lithuanian scientists develop revolutionary technology

Kasparas Kižys. Photo: FTMC
As long as there are humans on Earth, there will be all kinds of wastewater - we all defecate, we all wash hands, dishes or clothes. But what if that dirt became electricity? This is the question posed by Kasparas Kižys, a PhD student at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Technology of FTMC, assisted by Pamela Rivera, a PhD student at the same Department, and Romualdas Petkevičius, a PhD student at the Department of Laser Technologies. The young scientists have teamed up to form #hitEnergy - and their idea is starting to be taken seriously by more and more experts.
Proof of this came on 22 September, when the team took part in the prestigious event Life Sciences Baltics 2023 and won 1st place in the Startup Pitch Battle. After telling an international jury how biofuel cells would turn our waste into affordable electricity for all, FTMC PhD students received a €125,000 prize to realise their idea.
This technology promises to revolutionise wastewater treatment systems - and even replace thermal power plants! Let's take a closer look.
(Romualdas Petkevičius, Pamela Rivera and Kasparas Kižys. Photo: FTMC)
We will get electricity... by flushing the toilet?
We don't normally use the word "crap" when trying to convince costumed, serious people that our business idea is good. But there are exceptions to everything.
"There's one thing we all do at least once a day, depending on how lucky we are. We poop," Pamela, a PhD student at FTMC, began her presentation on stage. And she gave some telling figures:
"Every day, Europeans flush 66,000 tonnes of poop down the sewers, which could be converted into 1.1 billion kilowatt hours! That's equivalent to 110 million litres of diesel or 131 million kilograms of carbon."
"But this was just the tip of the iceberg. We didn't show how much material would come from farms and other places. But these statistics we mentioned are already impressive," says K. Kižys.
The goal of #hitEnergy is to turn wastewater into affordable, clean and sustainable electricity for all. To do this, we need to "recruit" yeast to eat the sugars in our waste and produce electrons as a result. In this way, these fungi would also purify the water.
(Kasparas Kižys. Photo: FTMC)
That's why Kasparas' team is currently developing and refining biocells that increase the activity of yeast. These devices are smaller than a finger, but their ambitions are very broad.
"Cities are using wastewater treatment plants, as are an increasing number of private homes. They need electricity to keep them running. And if we put in our own devives, not only will the wastewater treatment plant no longer use electricity, but it will even produce it itself! Why not?
Let's ask the utopian question - why not install a few of our electrodes in future sewer lines? The city would shine non-stop. The technology would be applied in cities, on farms, and then, we would see, all over the world," the author of the idea muses.
The chemist does not rule out other uses for biocells: "Let's imagine a special cube that we rent and take out into nature. We take a container or dig a hole, add sugar, put the cube in there and we have a rosette in nature."
The best thing would be for the technology to go beyond Earth: "All space installations need electricity. If there are humans, there will always be waste. And we can generate electricity from them - on the International Space Station, on the Moon, on Mars... Wherever the imagination takes us."
So far, the #hitEnergy project has reached what is known as TLR level 3. TLRs (Technology Readiness Levels) are levels of technological readiness that indicate the stage at which a technology is currently being developed. TLR 1 is the initial idea and the highest level, TLR 9, means that the product is fully tested, developed and ready for sale.
According to the scientist, the €125,000 prize will help to jump to TLR 5: a serious prototype of the biocell can be developed and the technology can be tested under real conditions, rather than in the lab. "This is a first investment and a lot of work is still needed. But we can see that so far things are going very well. So we started shouting: 'Give us the money'," he laughs.
(Kasparas Kižys. Photo: FTMC)
Electrochemistry with a smell
"Are you sure you want me to show you what's inside? You know, there could be a smell you've never smelled before in your life," Kasparas warns one last time in the laboratory. Of course I want to. But, in case of disaster, I pull my jumper over my nose.
The scientist opens the lid of a white plastic bucket to reveal a dark mass inside. But I don't smell any odour. "So the fume cupboard is working well," says the chemist, referring to the laboratory piece of furniture that, like a kitchen hood, sucks in poisonous, or simply stinking, fumes. This cabinet is where the buckets of waste water are placed. Kižys pours a little of it into a separate container, dips the bio-cells in it and watches the results.
What is this technology and how does it work? The researcher explains a few key points.
All bio-waste (and therefore also the waste water containing our faeces) is full of various sugars - for example, sucrose, glucose or cellulose. And these are much loved by tiny fungi - yeasts. The FTMC team is currently using brewer's yeast because it is readily available and relatively cheap:
"They eat sugars and produce certain substances and biological processes. To speed them up, we put the yeast in a bio-cell and use a chemical that dilates the pores of the yeast walls, membranes, - then the yeast takes up glucose more intensively and 'throws out' other substances. In this way, the yeast generates electrons, which create an electric current, and we have a clear change in voltage, which is indicated by the multimeter.
If nothing were happening, the instrument would show a power of between 0 and 10 milliwatts (mW). When we initially tested the bio-cells in a glucose solution, we got a result of 60 mW per square metre. And when we replaced the glucose with wastewater, we recorded 180 mW per square metre. So, three times more electricity! This shows that our yeast are really eating the sugars in the wastewater and converting chemical energy into electricity."
(A biocell prepared for the experiment. Photo: FTMC)
What does a biocell look like? It is a "sandwich" made up of several components. First, a cylindrical electrode a few centimetres long, made of a metal alloy, graphite or other material, is taken.
The electrodes are handled here by the third member of the #hitEnergy team,  Romualdas Petkevičius. He, for example, has used a 3D printer to create metal alloy electrodes that are made up of a grid. According to K. Kižys, there is no other like it in the world.
So we have an electrode. What next? It is covered (insulated) with a silicone tube, leaving only the top of the electrode "bare". This is where most of the action will take place. "We put some chemical on the surface, then wet yeast on top, and finally we cover it with a membrane so that the yeast doesn't get anywhere," says the chemist. 
The next step is to wrap this 'sandwich' with elastic plastic, which seals the materials tightly. This creates a biocell that is completely isolated except for the active top (7 square millimetres under current conditions).
The biocell is turned upside down and immersed in a liquid. A second electrode of the same size is needed to produce electricity, but at least ten times larger and "bare" and uncoated. Recall our chemistry lessons on the anode and cathode: in this case, the biocell is the anode from which the electrons produced by the yeast move, while the larger electrode becomes the cathode, which collects the electrons and "delivers" them to the connected electrical device - a multimeter, a light bulb, or whatever. Why does the cathode need to be ten times bigger? To make it easier to collect electrons.
"Our current biocell has an area of 4,000 square millimetres. The ultimate goal is to reach square metres! But it requires a lot of work and new experiments," says Kasparas. 
(Pamela Rivera introduces the #hitEnergy team idea. Screenshot from Life Sciences Baltics Facebook account video)
An idea that hasn't left anyone indifferent
The Life Sciences Baltics jury, which awarded the FTMC research team 1st place in the startup competition, believed that hard work can be successful. However, it wasn't all plain sailing at first: in order to qualify for the main Startup Pitch Battle, Kasparas and Pamela had to make it through the first round of the seven-team competition the day before.
When FTMC PhD student gave her #hitEnergy presentation, the jury said: "Look, we've chosen you as the winner because your product is amazing. But your presentation was a crap." It sounds ambiguous in this context, but the young researchers realised that they needed to change the way they presented their idea. Fortunately, the organisers of the event helped. "They gave us a mentor. I heard a rumour that it was the best in Europe," smiles K. Kižys.
It was M. Wallace Green, a mentor and investor in startups. He advised him to present his idea as simply as possible, because it has so much potential that winning the competition would be a joke.
"That evening, we sat down to work at the Martynas Mažvydas National Library and Pamela offered to finish the presentation at home. It turned out that she sat through the night, sleeping for maybe three hours," recalls the chemist. He met his colleague at the morning event, rehearsing her speech and holding her phone in her hand. Kasparas handed her a plastic bottle in his other hand to replace the microphone. After practicing in this way, P. Rivera had no problem picking up a victory in a real fight.
(Kasparas Kižys. Photo: FTMC)
K. Kižys says his team's technology is now the most efficient in the world compared to other similar experiments - but a lot of hard work is needed to make it work in real life. So much so that Kasparas' team is slowly filling up:
"I intensively looked for a padawan, because I don't have time to sit in the lab anymore, especially with my PhD thesis deadlines pressing... The idea of #hitEnergy is also the topic of this thesis. I have gathered enough information to write several articles. It is a very broad topic."
Written by Simonas Bendžius
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