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Thursday, July 10, 2014 12:01 am

Science to solve tomorrow’s problems

State research center helps people, profits and the planet

Cover: Deeptha Murali (left), B.K. Sharma (center) and Jennifer Deluhery (right) show off the reactor used to extract useful fuel from plastics that might otherwise end up in a landfill.


It looks like an overgrown garbage disposal from a kitchen sink, but the large metal cylinder sitting in B.K. Sharma’s laboratory is doing something incredible. It’s a reactor of sorts, turning plastic shopping bags – the kind that more often end up in landfills and empty fields than in the recycling bin – into crude oil.

That’s one of several groundbreaking projects under way at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, a state-funded effort to develop technology which benefits both industry and the environment. The work done by ISTC is meant to address some of the world’s most pressing issues, including pollution, water access, climate change and the supply of energy.

ISTC’s research facility is tucked into a quiet research parcel in Champaign at the University of Illinois, with several field sites around the state. ISTC is part of the Prairie Research Institute, a state-supported scientific research group which also includes the Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Archaeological Survey and Illinois State Water Survey. As a unit of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Prairie Research Institute is funded with $16 million from the state budget, plus $60 million in state and federal government grants and contracts.

Established in 1984 by the state legislature, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center started its life as the Hazardous Waste Technology Exchange Service Program. It was originally meant to address the problem of hazardous wastes produced by Illinois industries, by working with those industries to reduce hazardous waste and even repurpose it. In the years since, the organization’s name changed several times as its purpose evolved.

Today, ISTC’s focus is what director Dr. Kevin O’Brien calls the “triple bottom line”of people, planet and profit. O’Brien says solely seeking financial profit is an outdated business strategy. At the same time, he says, running a socially and environmentally conscious business can actually boost profit if done smartly.

ISTC director Kevin O’Brien (left) and Kishore Rajagopalan (right), associate director of applied research.

“We don’t want Illinois businesses to prioritize profit at the expense of the planet; that’s Texas,” O’Brien said. “Likewise, we don’t want them to forgo profit in the name of saving the planet; that’s California.”

ISTC partners with businesses to develop and test ideas and processes in the real world. While O’Brien says ISTC does collaborate with researchers from the university at large, most of ISTC’s work is meant for quick implementation, instead of more theoretical research which could be decades from feasibility.

“Here, we look for innovations and ideas that are immediately useful,” O’Brien said. “Over on campus, they’re just looking for knowledge that may someday illuminate something. We have a little different take on things.”

O’Brien and his staff showed Illinois Times some of their current projects last week and explained what their work might mean for the future of Illinois and the world.
Turning waste to gain
An astounding 102 billion plastic shopping bags were used in the United States in 2008, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 13 percent of those bags were recycled. That means around 88 billion plastic shopping bags wound up in landfills or littering the landscape in 2008. Those bags are made of polyethylene, a petroleum-based plastic that doesn’t biodegrade well under normal conditions.

Bidhya Kunwar, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, extracts oil from a reactor that recycles plastics.


That’s where B.K. Sharma, Deeptha Murali and Jennifer Deluhery come in. These researchers at ISTC are exploring how to turn hard-to-recycle plastics into fuel. The process involves heating the plastic in an oxygen-free environment so that it can’t burn, a process called pyrolysis. While ISTC didn’t invent the process, the institute is pioneering the production of useful diesel fuel, gasoline, natural gas and other petroleum products from plastic that would otherwise be discarded.

Sharma, who serves as a senior research scientist at ISTC, estimates diverting one million tons of plastic shopping bags from landfills would create nearly four million barrels of crude oil worth nearly $400 million.

ISTC researchers Lei Zhang, Xinying Wang and Junhua Jiang are working on a separate project with a similar theme. Their project involves storing energy in “biochar” – wood or other organic material heated using pyrolysis. When the wood is heated into charcoal, it can be used as a “supercapacitor” to store a powerful electrical charge.

A capacitor operates in essentially the same way as a person rubbing his or her feet across carpet to create static electricity. The difference between positive and negative electrons creates a charge that is released all at once. Supercapacitors have a much higher potential to hold a charge, making them ideal for applications that need an instant, powerful jolt of electricity. However, supercapacitors can also provide constant power if regulated, meaning they can operate more like batteries.

One of the most promising applications of ISTC’s biochar supercapacitor project is storage of electricity from wind and solar power. Because wind and solar power are intermittent sources of electricity – meaning they only work when nature cooperates – the electricity they produce must be used immediately or stored. Currently, large scale storage of electricity to supply the world’s power demand isn’t feasible, but biochar could change that because it’s exceptionally cheap and plentiful, with potential to store lots of electricity in a relatively small volume.

Dina Bettes, a student researcher at the University of Illinois, tests the opacity of activated carbon molecules in a liquid.


ISTC is exploring several other possible applications for biochar. One project is focused on using biochar to enhance the ability of soil to store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, while another project is using biochar to improve soil’s ability to hold water. Biochar also holds promise for improving the coal cleaning process and for absorbing toxic materials like heavy metals out of soil. A related project at ISTC seeks to use ash from the gasification process – in which organic materials are turned into useful gases – as an additive in concrete and clay bricks. The resulting blocks are lighter and create less carbon dioxide during production than conventional products, ISTC says.

A way with water
Although 71 percent of the planet is covered in water, only about 0.007 percent of it is liquid fresh water, meaning access to clean fresh water isn’t always a certainty. Droughts, floods, natural disasters and other factors can mean the water that’s available isn’t always potable. Researchers at ISTC are working to fix that.

Dr. Nandakishore Rajagopalan, ISTC associate director, is the head of the team developing the “Aquapod,” a method to easily extract clean fresh water from salt water. Rajagopalan, who was recently named State Pollution Prevention Scientist by the Illinois General Assembly, says reverse osmosis is currently the most effective method of desalinizing water, but it requires lots of electricity, which also usually means emitting a lot of carbon dioxide. The Aquapod technology, however, is a “forward osmosis” system that requires significantly less electricity.

Osmosis describes the tendency of a liquid to flow from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration through a semi-permeable barrier. The barrier has holes large enough to let only certain molecules through – usually only water and certain gases. In a reverse osmosis system, the barrier acts as a filter, with a pump pushing water through the barrier and leaving impurities like salt behind.

Instead of using a pump to create pressure, the Aquapod process adds an inorganic salt on one side of the barrier, overpowering the effect of the natural salt in sea water. The inorganic salt pulls water from the seawater side of the barrier to the fresh water side. The inorganic salt is then easily removed from the fresh water using a separate substance that binds to the inorganic salt.

Shantanu Pai, a waste research specialist at ISTC, shows off the waste sorting table and computer program his team uses to collect non-hazardous solid waste for recycling.


The result is a low-energy method of extracting fresh water from salt water using only simple chemistry. Currently, Rajagopalan and his team are improving the process to work on a commercial scale. If they’re successful, clean fresh water could become more accessible during disasters, in dry areas, near salt water bodies and in places with dirty water supplies.

ISTC researchers are studying other water-related issues as well. One project focuses on the effect of pharmaceutical drugs that find their way into the water supply through farms, drugs flushed down the toilet or other means. Another project seeks to conserve one billion gallons of water through efficient use and reuse of wastewater. Rajagopalan says up to a quarter of the water piped to consumers is lost through leaks, so his team is working on a solution. It entails a system of sensors that can hear the high-pitched sound of leaks and alert water companies, showing them which segment of pipe is leaking and how quickly.

ISTC is also examining the feasibility of creating a “saline aquaculture” industry in Illinois – basically salt water fish farms. The U.S. imports 84 percent of its seafood, creating a large outflow of cash. Raising salt water fish in Illinois would mean more money staying in Illinois and possibly even the creation of a new export industry.

A dash for trash
In the spirit of practicing what they preach, ISTC’s team of engineers and scientists is working to make their headquarters in Champaign a zero-waste facility, and they already sort their waste into categories for possible reuse or recycling. Last year, for example, they recycled 320 pounds of latex gloves used in their labs.

Shantanu Pai, a waste research specialist at ISTC, says he originally wanted to be a landfill manager, but he actually found his calling in keeping waste out of the landfill. Pai leads a team from ISTC which visits businesses and other organizations to collect non-hazardous solid waste – things like junk mail and empty pens. The team sorts the waste into categories, which Pai catalogues using a tablet computer, a Bluetooth-enabled scale and a series of barcodes. The waste is then sent to recycling centers, diverting it from the landfill.


Kevin O’Brien, the ISTC director, says another waste stream – discarded electronics – is growing quickly, so his researchers are exploring ways to reuse or recycle circuit boards and other electronic components.

While the methods and technologies under development at ISTC are geared toward solving problems Illinois faces or will likely face in the coming decades, O’Brien says their solutions can provide a foundation for other states and other nations to solve their own environmental issues. To that end, ISTC is part of a network of other states in the Great Lakes region which are sharing their knowledge and research as a form of peer review and collaboration. O’Brien jokingly calls it “Facebook for pollution prevention.”

“This is so critical,” he said, “because at the end of the day, who wants to reinvent the wheel?”  

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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