RRB 2014

25 Mar 2014 Comments 0

I'm going to Spain!


I was accepted for an oral presentation for my favourite conference, even if I missed the deadline and only applied for a poster.


There's a whole story behind this conference and why it's my favourite.


Find my accepted abstract at the bottom.

The link to the conference: www.rrbconference.com

In 2006, I was finishing up a Masters at the University of York, UK. I was there on a Commonwealth Scholarship, and saved up money to do what was supposed to be a month-long Euro-trip. I had no clue where my life was going, or if I will even stay in science. I was not affiliated to any academic institution, and I had no one to go back to - job or otherwise. I then saw this conference on "Renewable Resources and Biorefineries" advertised, somehow. It was only in its second year, so unproven in the pomp and fuss of academia.


Academic conferences are very expensive to attend, and that's not even counting getting there and finding a place to stay, and feeding yourself. These costs are usually, even if only in part, carried by your research group, or applying for finance, using the reputation of your institute as leverage. In addition, your presentation is usually supervised and fine tuned by someone with experience. I had no one. But, as luck would have it, it was hosted in York. I pulled some quick moves and managed to stay in my old res, cutting the accommodation costs. I also, promptly, cut my Euro-trip's budget in half and paid for myself. Next I updated my CV and printed 20 or so copies, applied for a poster presentation, and cobbled together the vaguest, wobbliest poster ever. Looking back now, I cringe, a little, but I am also intrigued that this poster had all the little elements that I can still see in my work. The wider search for meaning, the waste angle, the solar angle, the biofilm and fungi interest. It was, however, all over the place, and a colour scheme of light and dark brown. Looking back I wonder what made me spend so much money on something I had no idea on, what made me take that leap?


At the conference itself I was too young to really know what's going on, but the attendees were patient and tolerant at my rambles and shy-over-confidence (it's a paradox, I know). It was all a blur, actually. But, one thing happened and I think that had a lot to do with where I am today: I bought a book.

Renewable Bioresources: Scope and Modification for Non-Food Applications, edited by Christian Stevens and Roland Verhé (Wiley Publishers). Christian Stevens is also on the organising committee for this conference. The poor man has to deal with my gushing blubbering gratitude every time I see him. I hope he forgives me.


Page 97 dealt with Solid Substrate Fermentation (SSF) (which sortof is the reason I sold my house to get more experiment space), and on page 199, I saw poly(glutamic acid) - the polymer I went on to do my PhD on.


I don't think the book or the conference 'changed everything', but it showed me that my crazy dreams might turn into something with some pruning. At the very least, I was not alone in my ideas.

I went to RRB again, this time in 2011, and gave an oral presentation, titled "Producing poly-glutamic acid from wastewater, using bacillus - considerations when moving from bioprocess to environmental engineering".


It was still horrifically vague and low on details, but I was sure of where I was going. I just didn't particularly know how to get there or if it was really possible. But some people got excited and the rest politely didn't object or call it crazy.


I also bought two more books, which have influenced my entire garden design (and I guess another reason why I sold my house - bigger garden space and better soil):

Now, in 2014, I'm going back. With numbers, and a clear conviction that this is, indeed, possible. So much has changed in who I am and where I stand with regards to myself, and yet the core threads remained, and this presentation is a celebration of that.




Bernelle Verster, B Cohen and STL Harrison

University of Cape Town, Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER), Department of Chemical Engineering, Cape Town, South Africa



This paper explores the recovery of valuable products, including water and nutrients, from wastewater. Wastewater treatment systems represent a critical step in the increasing focus on resource efficiency, and potentially provide a link between the users of water and those responsible for its management where resources are recovered in closed loop cycles. This project seeks to demonstrate this observation, through considering the development of biotechnological routes to treat wastewater while generating secondary economic value through product formation from the components present in wastewater.


The paper explores the key design factors that need to be considered in extending the potential product range of these ‘wastewater biorefineries’, and the move towards implementation of a “total process” design. These factors include that:

  • Due to the nature of the dilute wastewaters, highly energy intensive production processes are not appropriate.
  • Because of the non-sterile nature of the wastewater environment, it is best to select micro-organisms for product formation that also fulfill a role in the microbial ecology, thereby providing a selective pressure for their dominance. It is also beneficial to select culture conditions and product to contribute a selective advantage to the microbial community of interest. Hence, wastewater biorefineries are not suitable for all bioproducts.
  • Because the units are operated under non-sterile conditions, and the effluent is eventually discharged to the environment, no genetically modified organisms are used as a rule.
  • Continuous processes are favoured, because it is unlikely to be able to store flows for batch processes due to the typically large volumes involved. This makes reactor design for downstream processing even more important, including producing a product that is readily separated from the wastewater through a phase change such as precipitation. Stress and storage polymers satisfy these requirements.

Ultimately it is argued that the use of wastewater biorefineries should lead to an optimisation strategy for maximising efficiency of waste treatment and of bioresource utilisation in terms of economic, environmental and social impact.

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