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Danish researcher receives grant boost to develop new tech to recover phosphorus from manure and sludge.

Patrick Biller, Assistant Professor at the Department of Engineering at Aarhus University. © Aarhus University.

“I’m very grateful to have been awarded this grant, which makes it possible to develop this exciting new technology that will enable us to recover valuable phosphorus from waste that is normally difficult to manage.”

An engineer from Denmark-based Aarhus University has been awarded a grant to develop a new technology that enables the recovery of phosphorus from waste.

The DKK 11.2-million (€1.5m) grant comes from the ERC Starting Grant under the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020).

The project is headed by Patrick Biller, a chemical engineer and Assistant Professor at the Department of Engineering at Aarhus University. Biller will use continuous hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) to recover phosphorous and carbon from manure and sewage sludge (also known as biocrude, which can be refined into aviation fuel, for example).

According to Aarhus University, the project is “ground-breaking” because it will allow for around 100% recycling of valuable resources in liquid waste management. In addition to biocrude, the end product consists of nothing more than clean freshwater, hydrogen and CO2.

The system will be fed with sewage sludge and manure at one end, and produce raw materials at the other end. If successful, it could have a positive effect on the environment across the world, as it will make mining for phosphorus redundant and provide the world with sustainable fuel, according to Aarhus University.

“I’m very grateful to have been awarded this grant, which makes it possible to develop this exciting new technology that will enable us to recover valuable phosphorus from waste that is normally difficult to manage,” Biller.

Phosphate is an essential mineral for all life on Earth and is added to farmer’s fields in huge quantities for use as fertiliser. However, rock phosphate is a finite resource and the biggest supplies are mined in politically unstable places, posing risks to the many countries that have little or no reserves.

Today, phosphorus is a valuable and scarce resource, which is ranked among the top 20 most critical raw materials by the EU. Europe does not have its own phosphorus reserves, and is therefore primarily imported from North Africa where it is retrieved from mines as phosphate rock.

Morocco and the Moroccan-occupied territory Western Sahara host by far the largest reserve, with China, Algeria and Syria the next biggest.

According to Aarhus, it has been assessed that phosphorous resources are so scarce that they will only meet the world’s demands for a further 50-100 years.

In fact, the Guardian newspaper recently reported that scientists have warned that the world faces an “imminent crisis” in the supply of phosphate.

Martin Blackwell, at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research centre in the UK, and lead author of a new study on the subject told the Guardian that phosphate supply was a “big problem”. He added that it could be a political issue in a few years’ time, with some countries “effectively controlling the production of food by having control of rock phosphate supplies”.

A solution to this problem is what Biller is developing – recycling phosphate from sewage. It has traditionally bene difficult to recycle phosphorus from manure because manure can contain large amount of antibiotics and contimination like microplastics.

“Due to the relatively high temperatures and pressures in the HTL reactor, all environmentally hazardous substances are destroyed, so that the phosphorus we eventually recover is clean, safe and plant-available,” said Biller.

Biller will officially start his project called REBOOT on 1 January 2020.

The project will be run at pilot scale at the department’s Centre for Biorefining Technologies at Foulum, Denmark, which is already home to one of the world’s largest HTL reactors.


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