Scientists at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) have been awarded a grant from the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) to turn their energy-producing waste water treatment technology into a startup company.
The technology, created by researchers in OIST's Biological Systems Unit, uses bacteria to clean environment-polluting waste water, whilst generating electricity in the process.
These so-called microbial fuel cells consist of a partitioned chamber with electrodes on either side. One electrode is coated in special microbes that release electrons when they break down organic waste in the absence of oxygen. These electrons flow through a circuit to reach the other electrode where electrical current is extracted as power. Unlike traditional waste water treatment methods that consume a lot of energy, microbial fuel cells can produce more energy than they consume, making them a viable source of sustainable energy.
"Our product is very applicable for local Okinawan industries that generate a lot of organic waste water," says, David Simpson from the Biological Systems Unit who has played a key role in the development of this technology.
One such industry is the production of awamori, an alcoholic spirit made from rice that is unique to Okinawa. Waste water containing bits of rice, as well as rice mold used to start the fermentation process and other waste products is left behind after the awamori has been distilled. OIST's researchers have been able to use their technology to clean this waste water so that it can be safely released into the environment.
Following the success of a pilot study in the Mizuho Shuzo awamori distillery in the Okinawan city of Naha, in which this technology was implemented over a three-year period, The Program for Creating STart-ups from Advanced Research and Technology (START) grant* from JST will enable the project to be scaled up for enhanced industrial applications.
"This project is not only focused on environmental issues, but will contribute to the sustainable development of Okinawa," says Professor Igor Goryanin, head of OIST's Biological Systems Unit.
The ultimate goal of the project is to create a product that harnesses the energy produced by the water-cleaning bacteria in a cost effective way and apply it to the Mizuho Shuzo distillery in Okinawa, making it self-sufficient for treating its own waste by the end of 2018. The combinations of bacteria could also be tailored for specific types of waste water meaning that this technology could be implemented in local pig farms and tofu factories, in addition to more international industries looking to clean waste water at the same time as generating sustainable energy.
"This technology is low maintenance and the ease of use benefits can be applied to developing countries and the improvement of water sources around the world," says Simpson.
OIST researchers are partnered in this grant with Bio-Sight Capital, a venture capital firm that will help guide the commercialization of the microbial fuel cells for industry. Given the success of a former collaboration between Bio-Sight Capital and OIST that resulted in the launch of OIST's first startup company, Okinawa Protein Tomography Ltd., researchers in the Biological Systems Unit are hopeful that this grant-supported partnership will enable microbial fuel cells technology to break into a commercial sphere, both nationally and internationally.
Dr. Viacheslav Fedorovich , who is also a member of the Biological Systems Unit, is very excited about this opportunity and thinks that it is right time for commercialization of the technology in Japan.
*The Program for Creating STart-ups from Advanced Research and Technology (START Program) assigns project promoter units who have commercialization knowhow. START Program is aiming at developing business/intellectual property (IP) strategies for technology seeds in universities that are risky but have great potential and commercializing them, by combining public funding and private sector commercialization knowhow even before start-ups are established. In this way, START Program is aspiring for making research achievements of universities and national research and development agency widely utilized in society and creating a Japanese-style innovation model that will serve as a sustainable mechanism.