Sewage treatment facility managers have to know their chemistry, too; but while they're also dealing with yellowish-brown liquids, their target end product is clean water that won't cause algae blooms and kill marine life. To turn wastewater into something that can be safely poured into a river, treatment plants use a chemical called alum (aluminum sulfate solution) to break down suspended solids and remove excess nutrients, including phosphorous, from dirty water.
Several years ago in Havre, Montana, wastewater plant manager Drue Newfield pieced together that barley would react with the microbes in sewage water in such a way as to perform the same task as alum. Because Havre is a small town (population 10,000), Newfield couldn't miss that there was a popular microbrewery, Triple Dog Brewing Co., just two miles down the road from the plant.
Newfield ran his idea by the brewery's owner, Michael Garrity, who was happy to donate leftover barley--a byproduct of his brewing process and thus, waste--to the plant. "With my knowledge of brewing and fermentation, I said 'Why aren't we doing this? This sounds amazing,'" Garrity told NPR.
With no existing guidelines to follow, Newfield spent two years patiently experimenting with the spent barley, adding doses of different sizes to the wastewater and measuring the results. Finally, last year, he nailed it. "The bacteria love it is what I've found, and it just disappears by the end," Newfield says.
The end result: The facility's alum bill--some $16,000 a year--no longer exists. In three years Newfield has saved the plant $48,000, and while he doesn't go into specifics, he also mentions that using the barley has helped the plant avoid an upgrade costing "into the millions."
The spent barley is free, save for the cost of transporting it two miles. As it turns out, that proximity might be the key to making this whole thing work. NPR reports that four hours to the west, the city of Bozeman's wastewater treatment plant duplicated Newfield's process in a pilot project. However, they are unable to make the process permanent; officials found that "the logistics of transporting the liquid brewery waste there are too expensive for now."
Wondering why, I looked up Bozeman's Water Reclamation Facility on a map, and see that there are 10 breweries within a five-mile radius, including one that's just a mile-and-a-half away:
I'm not sure what the true obstacle is--perhaps labor and transportation costs are far higher in Bozeman? Either way, I hope the reclamation facility manager and some of the local brewery owners get together, drink some beers, and figure it out.