20 Apr 2016 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

Singularity University, a benefit corporation whose mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s greatest challenges, has announced a new partnership with Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) in South Africa, a division of FirstRand Bank Limited, to launch the first SingularityU South Africa Global Impact Competition (GIC). One of the Merah Mas projects  - Smart Wetlands, placed in the top 5.


Good evening everyone, tonight I want to talk to you about smart wetlands, or, smart swamps for our American friends.


My name is Bernelle, and my avatar is indiebio.


I didn't put a slide up about the water problem, because I think we all know our water situation is dire.

We don't have enough water, and what we have is of poor quality.


I'm a bioprocess engineer, and I have been working in the water industry for the past 6 years. But my passion is biotech, and the bioeconomy. Biotech is fundamentally water based, so the real clinch point in these industries is water.

Our solution:

treats dirty water,

using waste plastic and fishing nets,

to produce clean water

and sellable products,

while tracking the data in real time.

This is what these wetlands look like - all images courtesy of Lynda Muller.


And this is how they work.


The plants grow on top of this matrix, and the bacteria grow inside this matrix. Together, they clean the water.

But the plants that grow on the matrix can also be used to produce products, like fibre - for example flax for linen, cut flowers, or even food.


The matrix is made from repurposed plastic, in this case recycled plastic, and then there is the multiprobe, that can record data about the quality of the water in real time.

This idea started when Lynda was struggling to fill demand for the matrix. These are all imported, and the current exchange rate made the import option unfeasible, and we could not find a local manufacturer. I brought a sample, so if anyone knows anything, please, we're still looking.

So we decided we need to innovate. We are looking at recycled plastic extrusion like the original matrix, but this involves grading the plastic, melting it and re-extruding it, which is energy and effort intensive. Our early attempt is shown in the middle of this slide.

We are now looking at shredding waste colddrink bottles, with a little tool - have a look at plastic bottle string, it's all the rage on the internet at the moment.

(e.g. this kickstarter project)


(I think we'd have to upscale a little bit, make it a tad more industrial, multiple bottles at a time, but it should still work without power, off-grid, and be very repairable.)

We're also looking at using abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) (See this UNEP report ), and you can see an early prototype which Lynda calls a 'kraai nes' (crow's nest) in the image on the right. This would be great for targeting the East African market, where these nets are a problem, and we'd like to start by using the created wetlands on Lake Malawi. We have a potential base in Mzuzu, and potential partners working along the East African coast already.


Then, the multiprobe. This is developed by a colleague at the University of Cape Town. It is not part of Kevin Winter's research, but he was getting so frustrated with what was available to monitor river water, that he hacked his own probes. He's already managed to get the probes ten times cheaper than what off the shelf components would cost, but I think we can get it even cheaper and more robust with more development.

The probes measure six parameters:

1. pH

2. Dissolved Oxygen, a measure of the health of the water

3. Electrical Conductivity, a measure of the dissolved contaminants in the water - the things we can't see

4. Total Disssolved Solids, a measure of the turbidity of the water, the contaminants that we can see, that makes the water murky

5. Salinity

and 6. Voltage, to check the state of the battery, which is powered by solar power.

The multiprobes sends data through in real time, so you can check it from your office. These probes need to be used everywhere, because we really don't know what is in our water bodies, so they have to be cheap, robust, and open to allow people to use these for their own data-gathering purposes.

What is the impact of this solution?


Yes, we are cleaning water, and that is important, but what is more exciting is that it can serve as a three-fold catalyst for micro-industries.

The floating wetland matrix is a tailored solution for hydro-agricultural production - this includes anything from fibre production, herbs and vegetables, to serving as a habitat/protection for fish. The 'scrubbing pad material' is very useful, and the main limit to finding many applications to it is the cost and availability.


Then, the process monitoring approach is critical to the emerging bioecomony, especially in an African environment where more decentralised solutions may be more appropriate.

On a wider scale, better environmental monitoring and greater engagement better informs policy, which better informs appropriate treatment, which leads to better citizen engagement based on actual data.


In short, a more science literate society.

The underlying technology is one of integration. This work is based on more than ten years of integrated research on wastewater biorefineries, including aspects of for example, bacterial attachment, biological wastewater treatment, treatment wetlands, and ecological engineering. We draw from global research in these areas and more over many decades.


The short version is, we integrate knowledge of water, biotech and IT, specifically embedded systems.

We have published one report already which is publically available from the Water Research Commission (link), and our second project concludes in May, so the report should be available to the public later this year.


08 Sep 2015 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

still a little bit in draft.


I recently attended the International Water Association (IWA) first conference on Resource Recovery (IWARR2015), from 30 August to 2 September 2015 in Ghent, Belgium.


I think the research we're doing at CeBER is on par with, and may in cases surpass what was presented at the conference. Below are some take home messages, and some highlights.




During the panel discussion on Sunday evening, Patricia Ossewijer (I first saw her on a MOOC on bioprocessing and it was a pleasure to meet her in person) held the view that water faces complex challenges. She cautioned that technology may not be enough. To quote her "Technologies are useful. Technologies on their own are inadequate". She further cautioned that it will not be a sustainable world if we don't address social development. She noted that poor people can own and operate complex technologies (like the cellphone), and so pointed out that we need to link technologies with what people understand in order to change behaviour. A discussion involving the audience was concerned that "we are scientists and technologists and we shouldn't be doing social stuff", which I believe misses the nuance; as technologists, we should do science and technology. The challenge is to do it in a better way.


More notes from the panel discussion:

  • Common hurdles for resource recovery (RR) is integration into the market, and that industries are specialised, they will not re-specialise to utilise a RR feed stream. For this reason it is a common view as well that the industry producing a certain waste should not be the one recovering it.
  • Legislation, and economies of scale were also listed as hurdles, but there was a significant portion of the audience with the opinion, which I share, that this is a challenge but not insurmountable.
  • The importance of marketing was highlighted. Economics was also stressed a great deal, and the current economic advantage is in reducing cost (of e.g. disposal), rather than producing a product from the recovered resource.
  • The presence of salts that poison a resource was noted. On the other hand, salt recovery seems to be a surprising route - see the Cluster award below.
  • High cost of resource recovery: cost is not the benchmark for the way forward. It is merely a challenge to overcome while we move to a better way.
  • Vitalphos is an example of a resource recovery product that found a very niche market application. (twitter image: We don't need to conquer the market. We need only to find applications where our products are better, and that that is very achievable)
  • Recovery needs to be directly coupled to transformation. Nitrogen and Phosphate recovery is not enough, we need marketable products.

IWA Resource Recovery Cluster Award


There was a IWA Resource Recovery Cluster Award that went to Desso Netherlands (they make carpets), The ArdaghGroup (glass manufacturers) and Reststoffenunie (a Dutch thinktank about resource recovery). It was a supremely elegant solution involving the gypsum (CaCO3) from drinking water treatment:

  1. Waternet: Calcite pellets are recovered from Waternet’s water treatment process and recycled as seed material in the softening of drinking water. Changing from a traditional sand core to a calcite core in their softening pellets delivered cost savings, an improved environmental footprint and higher revenues;
  2. Desso: Calcite is used for the backing in carpet tiles. Desso worked with Restoffenunie and water companies to sole the biggest challenge of producing a suitable material at a competitive price. The cost of the dried and ground calcite is higher than what Desso previously paid but with this new product they save on bitumen costs due to better packing.
  3. Ardagh Glass: Calcite recovered from wastewater is used to produce glass. To be effective, calcite must have very low moisture content and low iron content. Ardagh Glass worked with Restoffenunie and Waternet to change to sand-free, lower iron content calcite seeding material, and to develop an environmentally friendly process for drying the pellets using a specially designed truck to lower moisture content using only the engine heat while in transit;

Links relating to the solution:

  • Academic reference: Circular economy in drinking water treatment: reuse of ground pellets as seeding material in the pellet softening process
  • IWA network newsflash:'Flash of genius' recycles water waste into at-scale industrial applications
  • Cluster article: The IWA Resource Recovery Cluster aims to bring together R&D, water industry and materials users, and to promote economically and environmentally attractive approaches to resource recovery. (the below image is from here)

Kees Biesheuvel - "Industrial Symbiosis: A human challenge"


Kees Biesheuvel was probably my favourite presenter. He presented on "Industrial Symbiosis: A human challenge". He is currently involved with the SmartDeltaCluster in the Netherlands, and the case study involved Dow Chemicals.

My two favourite observations of his was:

  1. The importance of iterative planning, of communicating with stakeholders before you have a fully hatched plan so you can develop together and resolve issues before you're committed to any route.
  2. The realisation that logistics of resource recovery is not the core business of the companies involved in the resource recovery. I would like to think about this more, because I think this is a real opportunity for SME's to add value.

He noted that in industrial partnerships, partners don't need to know EVERYTHING about each other. Getting agreement on order of magnitude numbers may well be good enough, and trust is more important. He admitted that you need top management buy-in. Mere employers with good ideas may not get enough momentum to let it fly.

He stressed the importance of an independent, knowledgeable partner acting as a broker in between the companies in a fledging industrial ecosystem. In our discussion afterward he made mention of MUPs - multi-utility providing projects.

A reference was mentioned somewhere, in context to recovery of valuable metals from wastewater:

Westerhoff P, et al. (2015)Characterization, recovery opportunities, and valuation of metals in municipal sludges from U.S. wastewater treatment plants nationwide. Environ Sci Technol


A counter-argument to this, and many of the presentations at the conference was the impact of entropy: the fact that things are so dilute and distributed means that it may just be too difficult to get out. When I discussed this with Mark van Loosdrecht he said you have to sacrifice some of the advertised profit (the worth of the resources in the water) to get it out - not all of the worth is available to you. I countered that you need to sacrifice *something*, but it doesn't have to be money, it can also be time, if you're willing to wait, you can use a slower, more cost-efficient method of recovery. He said yes, we can wait 50 years for the gold to settle and then mine it out, which wasn't really my preferred answer. But it may well come down to that.

Mark van Loosdrecht - "Wastewater: What are the potential for resource recovery?"


Mark van Loosdrecht gave a predictably brilliant presentation.


A good point that he made, using Phosphorous as example, was that often the recovered product is not the market need, but the avoided costs. It's a sobering thought when you can get so attached to your recovered miracle product.

He also catchily said "We need to create self-organising systems due to economic drivers, that fit modern society". (twitter image?)

He showed the potential of using alginate in cement, which is likely my favourite anecdote of the whole conference. (image and link)



Two data-driven presentations


Matteo Papa was the one region-wide data driven presentation, looking at how Italian wastewater treatment works were scoring on resource recovery (not too well). It seemed only the big plants are recovering. The argument that it is because of economy of scale does not convince me, as I don't think they are doing anything directly related to the market, and smaller plants are often more flexible and can handle more risk, so can play more. I think it's more that the bigger plants are managed more like businesses, while the small plants are all but abandoned at the best of times.


It was soothing, yet depressing, to see that insight and overviews of the flows of urban resources are lacking, everywhere. The other data driven presentation I enjoyed was by JP van der Hoek (based at Waternet), where he looked at the strategies to recover resources from Amsterdam's wastewater. In his presentation, he mentioned 5 products that people are considering from resource recovery:

  • alginic acid
  • phosphorous
  • biogas
  • cellulose
  • polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA)

From these, he considered cellulose recovery as a 'no-regret measure'.



Veolia had a very large presence at this conference, and two presentations related to their investigations on PHA production, one by Alan Werker and the other by M Hjort.


I enjoyed Alan Werker's presentation. His article on PHA production from papermill wastewater was one of the first articles I read when I got onto the 'wastewater biorefinery' concept. He spoke about Cella, CellaPol and the PHARIO project. One awesome thing was the 'mobile PHA recovery unit' which I think is an approach that holds a lot of promise for SMEs.




Arc biocomposites case study: http://biopolymers-bioplastics.conferenceseries.com/abstract/2015/biocomposites-from-waste-derived-polyhydroxyalkanote-pha-mixed-culture-generation-of-polyhydroxybuturate-co-valerate-phbv-copolymers-and-their-inclusion-in-wood-plastic-composites

PHARIO project: http://www.efgf.nl/uploads/editor/Bioplastics-Vetzuren-A0.pdf


BIOPOL (Denmark)


Robert Kleerebezem - "Polyhydroxyalkanoate production from papermill wastewater"


Robert Kleerebezem, a colleague of Mark at TU Delft spoke about polyhydroxy alkanoate (PHA) production from papermill wastewater, contrasting their approach to that of Alan Werker's work at Veolia Water Technologies AB (AnoxKaldnes). One of his conclusions is that sewage is too complex to get the volatile fatty acids (VFAs) out, especially as you need the COD to remove the nutrients. They are currently busy with a waste to resource initiative involving Paques. He noted that we need to develop the whole value chain and make sure the big picture makes sense.



Techno-economics of PHA


E. Bleumink explored the technical and economical feasibility of PHA production from sewage sludge. The STOWA report is called 'Bioplastic uit slib' (pdf: report in Dutch, above image from the report)


There was a LOT of talk that the first priority of resource recovery is still producing cleaner water. While I agree with this in principle, it is an approach that I feel hamstrings any real progress. I'll concede with Angela Manas-llamas's quote: "Solutions need to be coherent with treating wastewater". Like we said in our research, don't put stuff in the water that will make treating it harder. Implied is, don't limit yourself only to water treatment processes. The audience was also divided by where the focus for resource recovery should be, with excessive focus still going to nutrients for land application, even if this is logistically very difficult and not very valuable. And if it's not nutrients, then it's PHA. Neither are my favourite approaches, by a long way.


On the last evening, there was beer brewed from wastewater as an publicity exercise for water reuse.

Some websites and reports that may be useful


  • The presentation abstracts can be found at http://iwarr2015.org. Log in with u:Participant p:recovery to download the abstracts.
  • Report with case studies:http://issuu.com/ruiveras/docs/web_state_of_the_art_compendium_rep?e=18849999/15109598
  • eu-routes.org Novel processing routes for effective sewage sludge management
  • SCOPE report with a chapter on water (think it's this one?) http://bioenfapesp.org/scopebioenergy/index.php/chapters/executive-summary
  • Alginate-cement http://repository.tudelft.nl/view/ir/uuid%3Add760c59-7f6f-40b1-9ed7-c96567921a94/
  • http://delftoutlook.tudelft.nl/article/stone-hard-concrete/
  • Cluster award supporting article: http://www.iwaponline.com/wst/07104/wst071040479.htm
  • Reststoffenunie (site in Dutch): http://www.reststoffenunie.com/
  • http://en.paques.nl/news/news/paques-stw-and-delft-university-of-technology-join-forces-in-biopolymer-production-from-wastewater/2
  • http://kunststofkringloop.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Robbert-Kleerebezem.pdf
  • http://stowa.nl/upload/publicatie2014/STOWA%202014%2010%20WEB%2011%20april.pdf
  • http://www.innovatie.waternet.nl/
  • Cella: http://technomaps.veoliawatertechnologies.com/cella/en/
  • CellaPol
  • http://cellaenergy.com/our-materials/
  • Arc biocomposites case study: http://biopolymers-bioplastics.conferenceseries.com/abstract/2015/biocomposites-from-waste-derived-polyhydroxyalkanote-pha-mixed-culture-generation-of-polyhydroxybuturate-co-valerate-phbv-copolymers-and-their-inclusion-in-wood-plastic-composites
  • PHARIO project: http://www.efgf.nl/uploads/editor/Bioplastics-Vetzuren-A0.pdf
  • http://www.knnadvies.nl/portfolio/projecten_van_knn_bioplastic/phario_project_officieel_van_start%2521/


05 Sep 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

Today I want to give you an overview of wastewater biorefineries. This is a new project funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC) which started in April of this year.


This is the project team I represent.

(Sue Harrison, Bernelle Verster, Madelyn Johnstone-Robertson, Shilpa Rumjeet, Lefa Nkadimeng, Mark Kerr, Robbie Pott, Sharon Rademeyer, Tayana Raper)



This project can be seen as driven by the need for better wastewater treatment, caused by things like growing human populations, increased industrial water use driven by increased affluence, and the need for a more sustainable society. This is however not the full story.


There are technological solutions to intensify the process which reduces land area requirements, but these still involve large upfront investment costs, and additional energy demands. I consider these small investments into a process that makes the system as a whole work better, but this view is often not shared by political and social interests. The bottom line is that this is not a tech problem.

Like most of you (the CeBER research group postgraduate cohort) I chose to study bioprocess engineering because of the many, to me obvious, opportunities that the biobased economy represents, hence I will not explore these opportunities here today. In some ways, I feel that this has been a bit of a scam, but I will come back to that in a moment. What this movement does represent is a lot of hype and political interest.


So with this project I wanted to explore if we can use these opportunities and this political drive to make waste (and here I wanted to use my favourite word but the team objected) more socially attractive.

The next few slides are a bit word heavy, but I wanted to include the whole definition because it takes a bit of time to get your head around it, and the text may help. What I want you to focus on is the integrated, multifunctional nature of this definition. It is not a single raw material to single product idea, like the biofuels movement was - that I definitely think was a scam. Also notice the emphasis on using the raw materials as far as possible. The objective is to leave as little waste as possible.


Slide text:

A biorefinery is characterised as an explicitly integrative, multifunctional overall concept that uses biomass as a diverse source of raw materials for the sustainable generation of a spectrum of different intermediates and products (chemicals, materials and bioenergy/fuels) whilst including the fullest possible use of all raw material components.


Co-products can also be food or feed. These objectives necessitate the integration of a range of different methods and technologies. The biorefinery process chain consists essentially of the pre-treatment and preparation of biomass, as well as the separation of biomass components (primary refining) and subsequent conversion and processing steps (secondary conversion). (German biorefinery report, Timoteo de la Fuente)

An encouraging development is this increasing global trend to move away from this single product outlook to a more diversified stream. To paraphrase a group at Wageningen University, it will be more sustainable to produce high value-added products from this biomass and its associated side-streams and use residual fractions for conversion to biogas or other energy-carriers.


So I am not saying biofuels should not be produced, but it should not be the first or sole objective of the process.

A wastewater biorefinery has the added subtle nuance that the water carrying the biomass is also a product. This has implications in the reactor and process design. Coming back to the social and political imperatives, we are trying to achieve closer links between the people producing the wastewater and those who need to clean it, which hopefully would create increased interest and care in how the water is produced and what makes its way into the water in the first place. This contributes to this concept of a circular economy, and, by the way, a very fashionable phrase in politics at the moment is 'both and' solutions rather than 'either or' solutions - so try that out at your next networking event!


Slide text:

A wastewater biorefinery needs to generate products of sufficient value to make it economically viable, as well as having unit processes (producing products of variable value) to produce clean water as a product.


This concept contributes to seeing wastewater treatment as an integrated system rather than a unit process, and potentially provide a link between the users of water and those responsible for its management where resources are recovered in closed loop cycles, and thus contributing to progressing towards the concept of a circular economy.

As an example of what such a wastewater biorefinery could look like, I include my process flow diagram. This is particularly to do with municipal wastewater, my passion. I won't focus on the details today, but I want you to see the range of products exiting the system - not just one product (for example the bacterial product, or bioplastic that I started my PhD on). In this case we see only one raw material - albeit a complex one - entering the system, but it is also likely that we will complement this stream with supplementing nutrients, extra carbon sources like agricultural wastes or other organic solid wastes.

This may all be well and good then, but I mentioned earlier that I thought this biobased economy may be a bit of a scam. Yes, it offers many opportunities, but in many cases the products end up being more expensive, and the whole process may not be more environmentally sustainable. Three factors in particular influences the outcome - raw material costs, energy and sterilisation costs and downstream processing costs.

Most of us in CeBER by now also know that while using waste materials reduces the raw material cost, the suboptimal nature of the waste may often make the total cost more expensive. In addition the transporting and logisitics of waste materials also represent a cost, so that these wastes are seldom really 'free'. In the case of wastewater, the infrastructure often does exist, so this can be considered as free, but the other two costs becomes even more exorbitant using conventional methods!!


Slide text:

A challenge to the biobased economy is that commodity bioproducts from renewable resources are often not economically competitive, and the challenge is threefold:

  1. The costs of the raw material, which could account for up to 80% of the total cost. Much current research is about using wastes as 'free' raw materials, but because of the suboptimal nature of the waste, often this method may make the total cost more expensive.
  2. Work by Harding (2009) and Richardson (2011) show that energy and sterilization contribute not only to the operating costs but also carry significant environmental impact.
  3. Downstream processing (DSP) is often difficult and expensive; purification may accounts for up to 80% of the total processing cost. (Doran, 1995)

Looking at ways to combat this was the focus of my work last year, and it comes down to reactor design. Again, I don't want to go into details here today, but the reactors need to focus on four areas: The often large volumes of these wastewaters, the complex, variable nature of the water, which I will come back to in a minute, that the water is released into the environment (which limits what additives you can add to the process) and the downstream processing (DSP).


Surprisingly we saw that DSP is already very well developed, but that reactor design is often not optimised to make best use of the DSP following it.

The bottom line is that we are trying to prevent working with the bulk of the volume, so you are trying to get what is important to you into a much smaller space. This means that you want to separate, or concentrate the growing biomass - the stuff that is producing your product, which in engineering terms means decoupling the solid and hydraulic retention times, and separate the product as well. What this means, in effect, is that we will be working a lot more with solids, so we have included that into the project by being more inclusive, more towards 'waste biorefineries'. Which is a bit sad for someone with a tattoo of water on her wrist and goes by the nickname of water maverick. But anyways.

In terms of the complexity of the stream, Barry Coetzee, at the City of Cape Town, sums it up well. “The reality of treatment works is that they are receptors; this is not a controlled environment. The technology in use needs to cope in the face of e.g. backyard industries that don’t classify their waste and just flush it down the drain, shut down of metal finishing works over holidays etc.” [edit: the grammar in the image is my mistake, will fix it when I'm on the image-savvy computer)


We are not only working with wastes that are complex to start off with, but we know roughly what's in them. We are also working with things that are undefined, where nobody knows what's in them. Then, we have to deal with streams that are known most of the time, and then things like power cuts or floods, or holiday shutdowns happen. We have to be able to deal with all of that.

Very early on in the project we realised that there are different groupings of wastewater, which presumably would be more suitable for different things. So rather than a one size fits all solution, we need to be able to make some decisions about what to use different types of wastewaters for, and which products would be more suitable for which types. This would enable us to advise industry players on the best options and partnerships to best utilise their wastewater.

Wastewaters can be grouped according to volume, concentration and complexity. The first two groups are easy, as once you know the volume and concentration, you can design for that, it's pretty straightforward. The complexity is tricky, as you can have changing compositions, changing concentrations, combinations of many different compounds present... and the reactor and biological populations need to cope in the face of this and still produce products. Addressing this is a big focus of the project.

One of the first questions I get asked is 'which products can we get from this approach?' People would like to hear simple answers like, biogas, this type of bioplastic, this chemical compound (TM), but because of the dirty nature of the wastewater, it is likely that we most of the time would get more dirty products, as cleaning them to become chemically pure would make the overall process financially unviable. A better approach is to focus on the product characteristics, and work on function-based products - for example bioflocculants, biosurfactants etc. It also makes sense to produce products that can add value to the industries producing the wastewaters, and here the types of wastewaters again plays a role in the selection. This is a big, challenging, exciting chunk of this project which I haven't really wrapped my head around yet.

What we have learnt from this project so far, in addition to the focus on solids, the need to define the differences in groups of wastewaters and the characteristics of potential products again is not technological, but more social. Quoting Barry again: “This is a young industry and no-one really knows where it’s going yet. Very few are willing to stick their neck out. We’re integrating systems that were not integrated previously. This represents a huge risk.”


A large part of this project is to translate the knowledge we gain into useful bits that make people more comfortable with this risk.

Something that I guess shouldn't have surprised us, but is disappointing nonetheless is the patchy, inconsistent reporting on wastewater by the players producing it. It's the out of sight out of mind mentality perhaps, the flush-and-forget, and also the fear of litigation in the case of non-compliance, and perhaps the risk of being able to reverse-engineer trade secret processes if you can figure out what is present in the wastewater. This is a mindset we will need to gently nudge into different directions.

My acknowledgement slide is a bit sparsely populated, not because there are not many to thank; there are too many to mention. Let's all have a moment of the warm and fuzzies here. It's more because I wanted to emphasize the support and funding of the WRC, and specifically Valerie Naidoo.


And to close, this was not as pretty and visually interesting presentation as I usually have, so I end with a pretty slide on what wastewater biorefineries could look like. If you are interested, I direct you to a talk I gave about this in Amsterdam, which has more pretty pictures and links.


Thank you.

25 Aug 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

The South African Bioeconomy Strategy was published in 2013, and I was asked to comment on possible implementation strategies. There are three sectors relevant to this strategy: Agriculture, Health, and Industry and Environment. My focus is exclusively on the Industrial and Environmental component, and I have fairly strong opinions against the other two sectors, briefly discussed below.


The South African Bioeconomy Strategy can be downloaded here:


Biotechnology is a hugely promising field in the current environment, where low-carbon approaches are fashionable. Biotechnology is very complementary to physico-chemical methods, because of the different specificities of biological organisms and their ability to function in lower quality feedstocks. Because biotechnology is different and complementary to existing industries, however, a different approach to grow the industry is needed.


My personal agenda:

  1. I do not believe the biotech, or green, revolution of agriculture is sustainable because it does not improve soil fertility and the overall resilience of agricultural ecosystems. I believe the only way to innovate in agriculture is through approaches that are similar to Permaculture – that is, more holistic approaches.
  2. I do not believe that biotechnology can give sea-change improvements in health. I believe addressing systemic issues like food, water, housing, have better potential return on investment.
  3. Therefore, I only look at a bioeconomy from the industrial point of view, and the circular economy, or, cleaner production points of view.

Inter-disciplinary bridges are key.


Page 3: “An important development entrenched in the strategy, is the drive to expand the country’s shift in focus from developing biotechnology capabilities – and subsequently the biotechnology sector as a whole – to developing a bio-economy, where the biotechnology sector joins forces with the ICT sector, environmental agencies, the social sciences and other technologies, especially IKS community of practice, to create holistic solutions and industrial applications for agriculture as well as the health and industrial sectors, in order to create a world-class biotechnological system of innovation.”


As for the skills required, we have a shortage of skilled people, so we need an interim implementation that provides opportunities for semi-and unskilled labour to work, and learn – basic computer skills to enable self-learning through, for example, online course, e.g. Khan Academy, the South African equivalent Numeric http://numeric.org/, EdX, Coursera. Allowing basic tinkering skills people up cheaply and may uncover ingenious inventions from people who by economic necessity or life experience have to think differently. It also builds social fabric and by allowing exposure to multiple disciplines, teaches how to communicate across them.


Venture capital is dead, or should be.


More realistic expectations from venture capitals about amount of returns and timeline of these returns. Need more projects funded that can fly with lower ROI and take a longer time to become profitable, but lasts longer. So a move away from ‘blockbuster’ solutions, towards more decentralized, localized, solutions. A smaller, modular model may be better. I think we can learn a bit from the emerging ‘sharing economy’ or ‘collaborative consumption’ to see how to scale this – both from the successes and shortcomings of this movement.

An article that shares this view:



What Bio-economy can learn from the ‘IT-economy’

What would we learn from the IT industry? (only some highlighted here) - points from Mark Dent (Dent@ukzn.ac.za)

  • How to openly acknowledge the complexity of the realm in which we work and thus engage the required learning journey.
  • How to gracefully compete for common, vital, limited resources. Their teams compete fiercely for battery energy & physical space in their designs.
  • How to learn from other disciplines eg organizational behaviour ; to the point that they are adding greatly to knowledge in this area.
  • How to turn the tragedy of the commons on its head; the more we feed on common knowledge the more it grows (open source code, open information sets, internet).
  • How to transcend disciplinary,organizational & inter-organisational boundaries, gracefully and productively.
  • How to build shared visions at a range of scales and move incentives and rewards to underpin them.
  • How to create critical mass when skills are scarce.
  • How to use redundancy and overlap to reduce risk and increase innovation speed and integration.
  • How to compete and co-operate simultaneously to grow the joint market.
  • How to control & direct vastly complex and creative systems without laws and policemen.
  • How to set free the enormous innovative power of self-organising without losing control.
  • How to “measure & reward”the innovative contributions of team members.
  • How to turn myriad failures into learning experiences that accelerate learning to unprecedented speeds.
  • How to develop ways to collectively see the whole picture, and our part in it, before we have physically created the picture.

Notes on “Annexure 1: Indicators for Benchmarking Biotechnology Innovation Policies” (image above)


I agree with the critical factors, but I don’t think the output indicators really translate to improving these factors. I feel like the ‘in between steps’ are missing, which is I guess the implementation plan, but I don’t really believe the implementation plan should try to lead to these outputs.

I think the number of collaborative product development partnerships is a good output to aim for.

The last 6 output indicators are relevant, but so generic that they aren’t really useful.

I think it is important to focus on open source rather than patents, but I still need to find good references to justify this.


Notes on “Annexure 3: National Biotechnology Strategy Review”

(page 40 - 43 in the report)

Proposed objectives and interventions that I believe ShackLabs can contribute to (and hence these are more important to me):

  • Develop and retain appropriate human resources for biotechnology.
  • Support sustainable industrial development using biotechnology.

Challenges that I believe ShackLabs can help address (and hence I set higher priorities to these in an implementation strategy):

  • Research institutions work in silos.
  • Inappropriately skilled and inadequate science and technology workforce.
  • Shortage of entrepreneurial skills and technology transfer skills and mechanisms.
  • Poor capacity to absorb science and technology graduates.
  • Unemployment among life science postgraduates.
  • The ‘innovation chasm’
  • Marketing and communication strategies to promote South African innovation (including for foreign direct investment).
  • Unable to use knowledge pools effectively.
  • Uptake of mobility funds for experts and students has been slow, probably due to marketing and communication challenges.
  • Inability to increase absorptive capacity of the system and create new jobs.
  • South Africa remains a technology importer with a large negative technology balance of payments.
  • Mismatch in the risk and return of capital budget investment.
(Note to self, I need to address these point by point in a ShackLabs business plan/concept doc)

Requirements of an implementation plan:

  • Cross-communication skills between different disciplines.
  • Business skills, coaching, innovation-guidance (e.g. through IDEO-type workshops), entrepreneurship courses for bio-support fields like agriculture and wastewater, organic waste treatment.


Ultimately I believe that policy interventions and grandiose implementation plans can do very little to promote any industry or economy. The best governance structures can do is to get out of the way and respond to issues as they come up. Removing barriers to experimentation where the ethical and legal aspects prove to be constitutional and helping with the import of expertise and resources (hardware, internet, specialist knowledge and exchange programmes in particular) are ways to achieve this.


I have also concluded that it is pointless to try to get people to listen and buy in to 'my'/any particular vision. Equality and poverty alleviation is not actually on the agenda in this overly tech-centric approach, they are empty words in these documents and discussions. It is better to get on with it on the fringe, out of the limelight.


I believe that smaller-scale entrepreneurs – garage tinkerers will be the best place to start developing a biobased economy. The emerging craft beer movement, for example, should be used to expand an understanding of biotechnology, and I believe home mushroom growing and cheese-making is on the rise too –these are excellent opportunities to get more people involved, get more excitement about biotechnology from both students (building capacity) and inventors. I would focus on the issues that GM-in-your-garage (BioPunk, DIYBio movement) may raise, as well as support for bio-hobby-ists. I would also focus on creating more cost-effective (by ORDERS of magnitude) the analytical and process control capacity to adequately control the bioprocesses, and allow better understanding and measuring of the process in order to create better and more realistic business concepts.


Other notes

P 4: “Biotechnology will play a crucial role in helping to improve the heat-resistance and drought-tolerance of crops”

We have heat-resistant and drought-tolerant crops. The problem is that people don’t want to eat them – it’s a matter of marketing, not biotech.


P4:“The industrial bio-economy focuses on two areas – industry and sustainable environmental management. The former involves bio-based chemicals, biomaterials and bio-energy. The latter involves water and waste as a means of providing environmental sustainability for the industrial bio-economy.” – Agreed.

“The Bio-economy Strategy’s key objectives with regard to industry and the environment are to prioritise and support research, development and innovation in biological processes for the production of goods and services, while enhancing water and waste-management practices in support of a green economy.” – Agreed, but as much (or even more)emphasis on supporting services – analysis, process control etc, than the actual bio-innovation.


P6, future prospects: I think the pharmaceutical industry as a commercially viable enterprise is dying.


P14 “provide funding and complementary services to bridge the gap between the formal knowledge base and the real economy”


P14“”Non-scientific skills”, such as business skills, legal and regulatory expertise, and knowledge of financing … are equally important.”


P15 “To harvest local research and development for commercialisation, the country should build its capabilities from the bottom up (through training, research and development), while accelerating efforts for the development and establishment of support facilities and suppliers (backward integration) and technology localisation.”


P17 “A major characteristic of this model is the focus on niche sectors that meet domestic needs first, but have potential to become globally competitive over time. Innovation in these countries was driven by public research institutions and a mixture of supply-and- demand policies.”


P 20 “Instead, the Bio-Economy Strategy will endeavour to make these solutions centrally available to all role players through technology service platforms.” – at what cost? Previous attempts were unaffordable and poorly managed.


And P35 “Pilot-scale infrastructure to support bioprocessing is available at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Technology Innovation Agency’s Umbogintwini bioprocessing platform, but these are underutilised. Access to these platforms will be expanded to allow entrepreneurs to test their production systems.”

How does this strategy compare to places like the Workspace in Hout Bay, http://www.justdiy.co.za/ , or the Cape Craft & Design Institute, Product Support Space http://www.ccdi.org.za/develop-your-product/the-product-support-space. This approach of providing access to the general public (not just bioscience graduates or professionals who have affiliations to institutions, of opening up more, creates a wider pool of potential talent who might be interested in using the more sophisticated platforms. This wider starting base also allows the users, ‘unknown civilians’, to build trust and reputation, and build a track record in lieu of having institutional backing. The bio-pool of interested people is too small on its own.


P 22 – Effective Communication and Marketing.

“As the bio-economy comprises a complex set of technologies that are often explained in terms that are heavy with jargon, the public’s understanding of it remains limited, especially with regard to biotechnology. Yet the public already interacts with bio-based products in the form of food, medicines, vaccines and environmental interventions on a daily basis. The Bio-economy Strategy strongly supports initiatives to promote public understanding of the technologies underpinning the bio-economy.”


P23 “While the country produces enough food to meet local needs on a national scale, there is widespread household food insecurity.” – so then the problem clearly is not about producing ‘more’!



17 Jul 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

Collective Productive Patrimonies (patrimoines productifs collectifs) and Sustainability Transitions

Martino Nieddu, Franck-Dominique Vivien


link: http://www.univ-reims.fr/site/laboratoire-labellis/laboratoire-d-economie-et-gestion-de-reims-regards-ea-6292/gallery_files/site/1/1697/3184/5292/6643/44373.pdf


I have taken sections as I need them, so it may not make sense as a whole, or feel out of context. Hence the link to the original article.



We use a regulationnist approach of sustainability transition in sectoral systems of innovation and production (=SSIP).

This case study describes the construction of a sector dedicated to the transition towards renewable resources in Chemistry that we call "doubly green chemistry".


Regulationist approach analyses in an “historicism perspective” the dynamics of sectoral systems; So, we use the conceptual framework of collective productive patrimonies (patrimoines productifs collectifs). Collective Productive patrimonies are, first and foremost, non-material resources (e.g. collective visions of the future, or the construction of intermediate objects -in the sense of sociology of science) producing coordination between users and producers and and collective learning. Collectives productive patrimonies are also material resources: dedicated public or private collective laboratories and technological development activities, or pre-industrialisation pilot units. Collective patrimoniies can be sectoral institutions and institutional tools for the constitution of communities -such as Europe’s ‘technological platforms’ or competitiveness clusters (poles de compétitivité) in France-.


In the first section we discuss the scenario of spontaneous emergence of a “dominant design” into “innovative niches” - a strong hypothesis of the Multilevel perspective of sustainability transition studies - by showing the importance of the logic of collective productive patrimonies to understand the emergence and the management of these “niches of innovation”. This scenario of spontaneous emergence of a dominant design into the innovation niches must be discussed considering the strategies of entrenched actors.


In the second section we describe the origin of collective productive patrimonies into biomass refining that contribute to form the new sector. We show that the ideas and the new technologies of transition towards renewable in chemistry are the product of food and fiber industries's dynamics rather than issues of sustainability transition or environmental innovations.


In the third section, we focus on four collective productive patrimonies. Each one seeks - through innovations - to project into the future its own existence. Into each of these four productive patrimonies, the set of innovation has its own logic of environmental progress. Two "Majority pathways" search to mimic the division of labor and the supply chains of petrochemicals chemistry. Two "minority reports" search to exploit the macromolecular complexity of biomass into another pathways. Therefore, the assumption of the formation of a dominant design must be rejected; and the explanation that use technological path-dependency must also be discussed. Innovations that are presented as radical innovation appear as enforcing existing productive patrimonies.



Economic activities can only exist when a certain number of resources are "lumped together" as collective productive patrimonies (we want to explain why we prefer this polysemic french term to the term assets). "In innovative, fast-changing environments it becomes more and more difficult to pinpoint firms (whether systems integrators or mere assemblers) as the correct unit of analysis.

Problems are solved ’socially’, and understanding how problem-solving strategies unfold within communities of specialists that cut across firm boundaries is a challenge to both practitioners and scholars." (Brusoni et alii, 2004:20).

What we refer to as collective productive patrimonies (patrimonies productifs collectifs) are resources which (1) are sought-after for their collective value, (2) have to be shared in order to exist, and (3) justify, through their own characteristics, the effort expended to preserve them, in phases of strong doubt as to their actual ability to produce new objects, at acceptable market conditions (Nieddu, 2007). Productive patrimonies are, first and foremost, non-material resources (e.g.construction of visions to the future, or construction of intermediate objects, as cognitive tools) producing coordination and collective learning between users and producers (Foray, 1994). These immaterial resources are systems which recognise free resources – scientific knowledge, for example – as being ripe for mobilization as resources in a given sector or network (Billaudot, 2004). As material resources, collective productive patrimonies is a matter of ‘localized’ facilities which allow scientists and economic actors to meet: dedicated public or private collective laboratories and technological development activities, demonstration and pre-industrialisation pilot units. Collective productive patrimonies can also be sectorial dedicated institutions (Barrère, 2007) or institutional tools for the constitution of a community, such as Europe’s ‘technological platforms’ or French competitiveness clusters (pôles de compétitivité).


The notion of the collective productive patrimonies takes these different aspects into account (interorganisational pooling of resources, path-dependency, and desire to maintain technological variety, or preserve niches). As O. Godard (1993) states, this notion indicates heritage as much as it does the desire for projection into the future: The heritage that you want to see recognised, preserved and developed in the future is a tool to organize a “taking power” on the future and control of this future. Therefore situation of transition must be analysed as competition to control the creation of “visions to the future”, as well as competition of technologies into transition.


1.1. Discussion of a dominant design

Specifically in the context of sustainability issues, the idea of a unique paradigm which would allow determination of which are the "good" environmental innovations presupposes that we will manage to define a priori "green technology" and environmental innovation technologies – a matter which is now hotly disputed.

The selection of technologies therefore leads back to the logic of actors, and to their representations of the future at the moment of making their decisions.


Moreover, technologies can be both complementary and in competition. Innovations are therefore only worthwhile if they allow the organization of interactions with existing collective productive assets (collectives patrimonies). Therefore, certain technologies "catalyse development and open the way up towards others" (idem): They can then be qualified as "bridging" or "two-world" technologies. (Kemp and Rootmans, 2005: 335).


1.2. Technological trajectories and collective productive patrimonies

The evolutionary theory sequence “exploration of a variety / exploitation of a dominant design” has its own explanation within the argument of benefit from the cumulative effects of rising yields. But it functions like a "black box" which raises a set of questions (Jolivet, 1999). In particular, it supposes: (1) that new knowledge is generated about the emerging family of technologies, and (2) that the related learning is translated into a collective capitalization of knowledge, so as to result in technological convergence. (This is not really happening - BV) Since the actors (laboratories or companies) hold heterogeneous knowledges that are partially contradictory, they have the obligation of produce collective theorizing about technology, in order to stabilize technologies, so as to knit together the fragmented and piecemeal knowledge they carry.


A further reason leads us to be attentive to the dynamics of “collective productive patrimonies”. The literature on transitions towards new socio-technical regimes, and on path dependence, invites us to consider that mutations happen "on the edges" of existing technologies and productive specializations, starting out as "niches" [Grin et al. 2010, op.cit.)]. Yet it is important to note that these are treated as patrimonies. They are protected from both competition and economic calculation in the course of the exploration of their potential, because of the technological hopes associated with them. ... [Avadikyan & Llerena, (2009)].


The concept of “patrimony” indicates that inheritance is more than transmission of the past, but also a strategy to “confiscate the future”, (organize and control the future).


"Expectations and visions about the future are increasingly acknowledged as a central aspect of science and technology development processes and as key elements in analysing and understanding scientific and technological change". [Borup et alii, (2006)]. (The biotech scene trades on hope, hype and promise, whereas the wastewater treatment field trades on

reducing risk and promising certainty - exactly the opposite. - BV)


1.3. Our case study: biorefinery and collective productive patrimonies

We analysed sustainability transition using the case study of biorefineries. This is an example of strategies that have worked to provoke the emergence of a dominant design. Biorefineries are presented as the new paradigm for using renewable resources to produce energy and chemicals. We will discuss this by considering that biorefinery concept must be recognized more as productive heritage of agro- industrials systems than an entirely new paradigm. ... Actually, they were designed to support the agendas of agribusiness development, in the hope of finding a quick route to a "plant-based refinery" by transferring know-how from petrochemicals.


In fact, this takes root in the history of agricultural production excess cycles and the resulting saturation of the agribusiness markets. In the United States, the "chemurgy" movement, and the 1935 creation of the National Farm Chemurgic Council (Finlay, 2003) bear witness to this investment. Productive patrimonies presented in section 3 have thus long since been documented. The technological foresight exercises of the late 1970s, following the first oil shock, did no more than pick up the technological ideas and hopes of chemurgy. And it is striking to note, in consulting documents of the time (Chesnais, 1981: 226) that it could be reproduced today without any modification.


2- The past of collective productive patrimonies into biomass refining

The first biorefinery would have been dedicated to the production of biodiesel and ethanol, on the basis of “a single raw material, a single major product”. Yet, within this logic, waste remains – and therefore, questions about the management of these co-products. In the case of biodiesel, for example, developing the production mechanically generates a “fatal” product - glycerol. (interestingly, this charts the progression of my PhD as well, and choices I made in it's journey - BV)


The second generation is still based on the process of a single raw material. Yet it suggests using all the biorefinery co-products and thereby extracting a whole range of products for energy, chemistry and other materials.


The third generation may be in a phase of emergence, set to reach maturity as a process around 2020. Sharing the same multi-product approach as the previous one, it diverges in two ways. Firstly, it would be capable of using different types of raw materials and transformation technologies. Secondly, it would be capable, depending on price developments, of modifying the technical itineraries to reverse the hierarchies between key-products and sub-products. This possibility - of instantaneously selecting the most profitable combination of raw materials and process - relies on a vision of the ideal production tool that would be fully adaptable to market fluctuations.


it seems to us that a re-evaluation of the role of agriculture and agribusiness actors is necessary, particularly given the fact that the productive assets shaped by their know-how and units of transformation were likely to be redeployed in other projects.

Indeed, the "cracking" of agricultural resources is a generic process. (...) Therefore, the collective patrimonies contributing to a "plant refinery" are not, historically organised around fuels – even though, with installation in a world of structural agribusiness excesses (which arrived in Europe via the Mansholt plan of the late 1960s) the idea of regulatory constraints aimed to incorporate a minimum amount of “biofuel” in petrol. This seems all the more natural because of the fact that the agricultural profession has merely

reactivated solutions that are already deeply engraved in its memory.


It is therefore necessary to track the progress of biorefinery along two pathways, each of which saw the emergence of research and production communities: the first being related to problems of substitution for liquid fossil fuels (the main purpose of cracking being for energy), and the second being the broadening of the range of products supplying materials and basic products for a specialty chemistry founded on sugars or oils. The paper industry has been experiencing the same market saturation with the emergence of excess production capacity, which is leading it to draw the same conclusions (Stuart, 2006).


3- The future of the use of renewables : four productive patrimonies

The important point is that the scientists agree on the fact that there is no key to getting a priori a definitive advantages of one type over another, as Hayes has shown in a review for Catalysis Today. The fact that there is a variety of processes, each of which must be seen as “having its strengths and weaknesses” (Hayes, 2009:148) is attested to by several other general overviews (e.g.: Gallezot (2007) in Green Chemistry, Octave and Thomas (2009) in Biochimie). In the Catalysis Today, article, Hayes stresses the fact that assessments of technological hopes will be different, depending on the location of biorefineries and the timescales used.


Bennett (2009) who conducted a series of interviews, stresses the tensions that are perceptible between actors having a preference for bioethanol or biodiesel technologies (coupled with the transformation of co-products to chemical products with high added value), and other actors from agribusiness and specialty chemistry, reticent to follow the same path. These others were seeking to discuss both the definition of initial fractionation and the dominant destination of production.


3.1. In the core of differences : supply chains and philosophies of chemistry

The modern chemistry paradigm is based on the idea of the breakthrough and recomposition of links between chemical elements: the stages go from the fractionation of products into elementary units (with significant energy costs), their purification (within processes and using solvents which can be harmful to the environment) so as to isolate and control elementary


Next we come to key intermediates, and then reforming operations are conducted on complex products, via a cascade of multi-stage chemical reactions (which are also costly in terms of energy, and mobilize catalysts, the safety of which is hotly debated).


The constant dilemma of chemists using renewable resources, as A. Lattes, honorary chairman of the Fédération Française pour les sciences de la Chimie has already stated9, is to choose between two strategies: (1) the perfecting of the "destructuring" fractionation pathways that are typical of the oil industry, conceptually well-mastered by the chemists, (2) a “weak destructuring" pathways (i.e. : which preserve the functional properties or active principles contained in the complexity of living organisms). This leads some of them to identify the fractionation-modification pathways in order to obtain functionalities without having to go

through the full destructuring phases: "Rather than following current industrial practice, where macromolecules present in the biomass are broken into C1 building blocks first, which are next reassembled into the desired functional molecules, the synthesis power of nature should be used to the maximum possible extent. For this purpose, the rich molecular structure in the biomass has to be accessed without significant degradation" (Marquardt et alii, 2010, p.2229).


In the same manner of thought, the biomass conversion strategy passing via biochemical pathways has been under discussion recently in major scientific “critical reviews" (Sheldon,2010, Gallezot, 2012, yet to be published). At this point, chemists in search of alternatives refer to a heritage from the agribusiness and oleochemistry sector, which will lead us to characterize each of these pathways on the basis of the productive heritage which carry them: “In the future the platform molecule value chain could become more and more successful to produce high tonnages of bioproducts, but in the mean time most of the high tonnage industrial bioproducts are produced by a different strategy which does not aim at producing pure isolated chemicals competing with those derived from petroleum. This strategy consists of converting biomass in minimum steps to functional products such as surfactants, lubricants, plasticisers, polymers, ..., paints, food additives, and cosmetics. Many examples illustrating this approach are given in Sections 4 and 5 of this review. As practised in the food industry, it is not always needed to isolate pure chemicals to make marketable products. This value chain is more likely to be cost competitive because it reduces drastically the number of conversion, extraction and purification steps.” (Gallezot Chem. Soc. Rev., 2012, 41, 1538-1558, p.1551)


3.2. Two "majority" pathways, but a single biomass conversion strategy?

This pathway sets out a strategy which comes back to "mimicking" the traditional organisation of petrochemicals, the basic chemistry of which is founded on five major oil intermediates (ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene and toluene) that were precursors to specialty chemistry. The “technological roadmap” exercises will determine ... “Top 12” platform molecules. ... The industrial and research issues thus travel through this limited list of precursors, which builds, very largely, on perspectives foreseen in the late 1970s. This “top 12” was to be specified by some actors as going in a very particular direction: towards strict complementarity with existing petrochemistry. This is an installation strategy for biorefineries of major chemical industrial strongholds -such as the ports of Gand, Rotterdam, or Singapore. The challenge lies in making the transition towards renewables resources sustainable for these currently petrochemical industrial areas (by mobilizing an agricultural resource delivered to world markets). The article which best describes this is a Dutch exercise listing the main intermediates produced and consumed by the chemical complex at the port of Rotterdam to envisage, term by term, their supply by biomass: for example, the conversion of "bio" ethanol into ethylene and propylene or glycerol, in a 1.3-propanediol to produce the same propylene glycols as petro chemistry [Van Haveren et alii, (2008)].


The chemical industry could thus remain essentially identical, even as the "biosourced" revolution happens. The processing of plants aims to return towards known chemical intermediates, modifying neither their structure, nor their intrinsic properties. "Biosourcing" thus requires no evolution in production processes for plastics manufacturing, with only the early stages of the chain having to adapt to the change of resources; and the applicative scope remains similar to that of existing markets.


This, then, comes back to a very particular way of selecting research programs and learning pathways on the transformation of the intermediates "Top 12". For example, whilst we know it to be possible in the laboratory, those colleagues questioned in 2005-2006 dismissed the

transformation of agricultural ethanol into ethylene as not making much sense because of the energy cost of the reaction; and yet this "complementarity pathway" has imposed itself on observers, as is proven by the construction of production units by oil group Braskem in Brazil, so as to be able to rapidly “greenify” the carbon footprint of industries with an extensive use of plastic bottles.


3.3. “Minority reports”?

In their own language, chemists thus contradict fractionation into C1, C2, and C4 for thermochemistry or C5 and C6 for the biochemistry of platform molecules. In “minority reports” one prefers “weak fractionation” into long, complex chains. If we take the example of starches, we are not seeking to attain the monomer stage, through fractionation operations, but to achieve a limited transformation of "native" starches so as to “functionalise” them - that is, to endow them with specific functions that are of interest to a particular market;


Another alternative pathway (alternative to strong deconstruction in biorefinery) relies on agribusiness which, during the traditional separation of the plant’s major components, has conserved their structure so as to conduct the exploration of potentially useful qualities, by means of physical or physico-chemical treatment which is respectful of their complexity. Good

illustrations of this are hemp-based concrete, and wool insulation, In contrast to the fractionation into "platform molecules" strategy, this compound is described as drawing its properties from the simultaneous presence of fibres (playing a reinforcement role which improve mechanical properties), starch and proteins (thermoplastic properties), fats (lubrifying action that is useful to the process) [Evon, 2008]. Programmes such as Lignostarch (2007) seek to combine the plant’s major components to obtain materials directly, in the same way, and as indicated by the program name, Lignin + starch.


Conclusion: What is changing and What does not change ?

The second issue is that the (desired) socio-technical regime is itself a stake in the competition; The dynamics of “entrenched actors” do not consist into a realization of forecasting analysis and exploration into the niches to discover the future. But the collective operations of US Agriculture department or European Commission mentioned in this text are especially exercises of backcasting from a dominant vision of the future to organize the technological and economic choices today.


In this backcasting, the development of renewable resources in energy and chemistry is considered as a model mimicking the supply chains and the division of labor into petrochemistry. And the technological change is oriented to maintain these supply chains.


So renewables are integrated into a process of greening that preserve the traditional chemistry supply chains, and the business models of agri-foods firms (founded on the production of intermediates).


The third point we wish to emphasize is that the problem of using incremental and radical innovation categories in a context of sustainability transition and of environmental innovation. The technological trajectories described in our case study show that innovations considered as radical from one point of view are actually innovations to maintain a technological trajectory and reproduce a given productive patrimony (eg: biofuels were considered as a radical innovation in the late 1990s by evolutionary economists of environment, such as Faucheux and Nicolai, 1998, despite its role in maintaining the liquid fuel and intensive agriculture trajectories).


Therefore, an innovation that is considered as radical in regards to scientific or technological dimensions, may not be so radical within the socio-technical regime. We have seen the opposition between the "minority pathways" and the term-to-term substitution strategies. Term- to-term substitution strategy corresponds to building a "biobased chemistry" which does not entail any profound reorganisation of the next stages in the value chain, and so of the current socio-technical chemistry regime. Minority pathways are looking for a paradigmatic breakthrough, in terms of “how green chemistry principles are applied”. And they use old know-how and incremental innovations as well as radical ones.


As a result, each productive patrimony seeks to develop its own progress in the use of“green chemistry principles”, combining, from a systemic perspective, small steps and disruptive knowledges and innovations. Similarly, it is difficult for us to characterize the emerging innovations in this sector as environmental innovation per se, because of the rebound effects.


17 Jul 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

Moving from a linear to a closed loop (Ger Bergkamp, African Utility Week keynote presentation, May 2012).

Notes from the WRC K5/2000 report, Chapter 10. In preparation for the 'social aspects / economics' article. I've kept the original figure titles for convenient crossreferencing.


In addition to defining the technical requirements of wastewater biorefineries as a move towards an industrial ecology approach, it is essential to understand the operational, logistic and social factors affecting their realisation.


The key question on which the interviews were focused was:

‘What are your views around industrial ecosystems with wastewater at the core - in our words, wastewater biorefineries?’


The outcome of the interviews with industry practitioners around this question can be summarized by Barry Coetzee’s (City of Cape Town) quotes:

“This is a young industry and no-one really knows where it’s going yet. Very few are willing to stick their neck out. We’re integrating systems that were not integrated previously. This represents a huge risk.”

“There is an opportunity for waste beneficiation, of viewing waste as a resource. Combined with the increased need for water reuse, and more stringent nutrient removal needs, recycling (of all sorts), already a valuable industry, becomes even more attractive.”


For practitioners to accept the biorefinery concept, assurance around the risk aspects and technical aspects are needed, as well as a clear value offering of the product. - BUT, this current work argues that this is not enough.


Donella Meadows (1999) lists 12 leverage points to intervene in a system, with the power to effect a paradigm shift the most effective one to change a system. While constants, parameters, and numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, and standards) are strong incentives to drive behaviour and can be used to influence a change in the system, they are not capable of changing the mindsets inherent in the behaviour. A big driver influencing mindset, and thereby instigating system changes, is the realization that the size of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows, are decreasing, pushing up raw material prices and waste treatment costs. These changes include greater awareness of the resources used, greater awareness and action on companies treating their own water, etc. However, the change is currently generated in an ad hoc way and largely in isolation to other industry players. At times, it is even done in isolation of other components operated by the same industrial player.


Operation of closed systems is dependent on the quality and trustworthiness of information. The internet and greater information literacy have influenced the structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to information of differing types) which is changing to benefit viable ecosystem economies. Previously, knowledge was asymmetrically distributed. The open source platform and social media platforms are increasing its symmetry, allowing a different set of competitors and different types of players to compete. This changes the operation of the system and its rules (such as incentives, punishment, constraints; implicit or explicitly) and correlates with Perez’s (2002) assertion of the lag time in institutional response to technology revolution, discussed later in this document.


The most powerful way to leverage change in a system is to devolve power to add, change, or evolve the components of the system to a wider base i.e. to decentralize or allow the system structure to self-organize. Such devolution has potential for chaotic outcome. In order to allow a decentralized system to move in a coherent way, the goal of the system needs to be clearly defined and communicated – in terms of a vision.


Carlota Perez (2002) argues, in turn, that the prevalent paradigm is inherent in the current technological revolution, and that with technological revolutions come paradigm changes, as shown in Figure 93 (below). Over the last century we have experienced the ages of oil and mass production followed by the age of information technology. She further argues that we are on the brink of a new such technological revolution (Figure 94 - not shown in this blogpost).

Figure 93: Recurring phases of each great surge in the core industries (adapted from Perez 2002)

10.4 Thinking wider: What is needed to implement an ecosystem economy

The potential of an ecosystem economy and the use of these principles in handling of wastewaters, allowing the establishment of wastewater biorefinery principles, rely on the establishment of several facilitators. These are discussed below.


10.4.1 Economically viable attractors

“It is suggested here that for society to veer strongly in the direction of a new set of technologies, a highly visible ‘attractor’ needs to appear, symbolizing the whole new potential and capable of sparking the technological and business imagination of a cluster of pioneers. This attractor is not only a technological breakthrough. What makes it so powerful is that it is also cheap or that it makes it clear that business based on the associated innovations will be cost-competitive.” (Perez 2002)


There have already been initiatives to drive development of closed systems already set up and it is valuable to address factors limiting their rapid uptake. The best known, ZERI – zero emissions research institute (www.zeri.org), works towards finding valuable products that can be produced from waste. These initiatives have seen limited reach, however.


10.4.2 Systems analysis

The need for the contributors to water treatment and use of water as a resource to work collectively or collaboratively is clear. To facilitate this, the differing operating premises of the municipality and private sector need clear recognition (Coetzee, 2012).


10.4.3 Local context – decentralisation (the argument for bottom-up impact via entrepreneurs (rather than (just) a focus on policy)

In Desrochers and Sautet (2008) the emergence of innovative practices and behaviour is supported, including the development of inter-industry linkages and new combinations of existing technologies and materials (“Jacobs externalities”). They position entrepreneurs as a key component:

“The issue is not that regional specialization policies are developed at the expense of spontaneous industrial diversity. Indeed, the two can coexist. Rather, we argue that entrepreneurial activity is at the source of regional development and that theory and evidence seem to indicate that spontaneously developed industrial and economic local diversity typically provide a better substrate for entrepreneurs to innovate.”


A key aspect of decentralisation is the move away from central control which adds the challenge of insuring that regulations are met while at the same time facilitating innovation. Interesting aspects influencing this approach are reflected in the following quotes:

  • “[a wastewater biorefinery concept] more focused on facilitation than object creation, on transitioning from consumption to participation. The consumer moves from being a passive receiver to an active participant” (Botsmans & Rogers, 2010).
  • “The convergence of social networks, a renewed belief in the importance of community, pressing environmental concerns and cost consciousness are moving us away from top-heavy, centralized and controlled forms of consumerism towards one of sharing, aggregation, openness and cooperation” (Botsman & Rogers, 2011).
  • “With the advent of computers, and the internet, large pyramids now appears rigid and clumsy. In its place, the decentralised flexible network structure, with a strategic core and a rapid communication system, has shown its capacity for accommodating much larger and more complex global organizations as well as smaller ones” (Perez, 2002).
  • “One of the most interesting stories in social change today is how much creative problem-solving is emerging from citizens scattered far and wide who are taking it upon themselves to fix things and who, in many cases, are outperforming traditional organizations or making systems work better” (Fidelman, 2012)

The technology that enables wastewater biorefineries is a necessary prerequisite, but is not sufficient. In order to promote this, it is necessary to take note and develop the underlying principles that allow individuals to engage in complex behaviour in a coordinated way. Ideally, a wastewater biorefinery can achieve appropriate systems-wide value, simultaneously with appropriate decentralisation.


10.4.4 Knowledge diffusion for small scale and large scale plants

While the discussion above has focussed on small scale wastewater treatment works, works of any size are expected to gain from being on a web-based database, both in terms of monitoring the performance and maintenance of these plants as well as obtaining information about them for accreditation, for example (Keyser, 2013). There was also agreement that the building of works is less of an issue than the continued involvement in maintenance, and stakeholder engagement once the project is running. Improved knowledge diffusion would not only improve the potential of industrial partnerships to move towards an ecosystem economy by allowing identification of opportunities for combined treatment and product formation, but also allow faster and more effective action to respond when there is a disruption in the system. Van Berkel also concludes that

“...facilitation and promotion instruments are approximately four times more effective in achieving resource synergies than planning approaches.” (van Berkel, 2006).


10.4.5 Communication of benefits


10.4.6 Regulations and Risks


“The irruption of a set of powerful and dynamic new industries accompanied by a facilitating infrastructure will obviously have enormous consequences both in the industrial structure and in the preferred direction of investment in that period. But the old organizational models cannot cope with or take full advantage of the new potential. The new possibilities and their requirements also unleash a profound transformation in 'the way of doing things' across the whole economy and beyond. Thus each technological revolution inevitable induces a paradigm shift.” Perez (2002):


Note about wastewater treatment works (WWTW: [I]t is difficult to implement income generating secondary industries on state owned operations (e.g. municipal WWTP), because motivating for and realising the additional investment and manpower required from existing budget allocations are challenging (WRC 400/09). From discussions with Brett Keyser (Stellenbosch Municipality) and Barry Coetzee (City of Cape Town), the regulations around these processes are adequate, but the interpretations are not done adequately.


In the case of wastewater biorefineries, a clearer definition of the public facility’s mandate can be explored and areas that fall outside this can be sold to entrepreneurs. Providing effluent compliant wastewater is a public mandate. Generating value from resources in transition (waste) and the infrastructure around that is a private sector activity. As Barry Coetzee notes, the private sector cannot expect local government to fund what is essentially a private sector activity. Communicating with public utilities to facilitate this activity in return for better infrastructure overall, better service delivery and a better industrial ecosystem can be facilitated by independent industry bodies (like Water Regulators), and needs the cooperation of public utilities, but as it is to further a private activity, the onus is on the private sector to promote this.

Relevant references:

  • Botsman R, Rogers R, 2011, What's mine is yours: how collaborativeconsumption is changing the way we live,Collins Publishers, London.
  • Desrochers P and Sautet F 2008, Entrepreneurial Policy: The Case of Regional Specialization vs. Spontaneous Industrial Diversity, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 813-832.

  • Fidelman 2012 (Misattributed??) found phrase in ‘The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur’, David Bornstein, 13 November2013 http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/the-rise-of-social-entrepreneur/ (accessed17 July 2014)
  • Meadows D, 1999, Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system, The Sustainability Institute.
  • Perez C, 2002, Technological revolutions and financial capital : the dynamics of bubbles and golden ages, Cheltenham Publishers

  • Perez C, 2011, Finance and Technical Change: A Long-term View, African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development 3(1) 10-35.

  • van Berkel R, 2006, Regional resource synergies for sustainabledevelopment in heavy industrial areas: an overview of opportunities andexperiences. Centre of Excellence in Cleaner Production. CurtinUniversity of Technology, Australia.


16 Jul 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0


Image from d3js.org. No real link to the content of this post, this is just the other stuff I'm busy with and I think the complexity carries through. And it's pretty.

A huge challenge to wastewater biorefineries, in my view, and I guess to biotech in general, and certainly to my personal unconventional approach to business, has been the 'different worldviews' of the different actors. Trying to get scientists, business people and engineers in one room is hard. Trying to get biotech entrepreneurs and wastewater professionals talking about resource recovery should be easier. It is, frustratingly, even harder. At long last, I think I might be able to tease apart why. From there, I hope to find some implementable solutions to bridge this gap.


These thoughts come after a presentation by Nicolas Befort at the RRB 2014 conference held in Valladolid, Spain. His talk was titled "Biorefineries and the Bioeconomy in search of business models". I'm in email communication with him, but at this stage my thoughts are a mess, so I won't try to articulate them yet. He is also French, so most of the publications I found were too. But, this is one article I found that I think is intriguing enough to summarise here. Comments welcome.



One thing Nicolas said in the email thread that is worth copying is his idea of the challenge:

"To me, people from biotech and wastewater biorefinery developed business models and ways of thinking... the value-chains that are completely different, and so, they don't think of the products in the same way. In biotech industry (or especially in this technological trajectory in biorefinery), it is mostly for the production of low value product, that could not be efficient from an economic point of view (because you need to have huge plants to have economy of scale on plant fractionation but you need for this a huge market, plus the problem of heating...). But from a micro point of view (or from the point of view of creating economic activities), the articulation of them both to create a productive heritage could be a good idea."


These sentiments were echoed in a very good conclusion from poster 38 at the RRB conference, on Seaweed Biorefineries, by Paulien Harmsen et al, from Wageningen, that can be applied to biorefineries in general:

Many initiatives of seaweed valorisation focus on fermentation of the whole seaweed to low-value energy carriers such as biogas or ethanol. It will be more sustainable to produce high value-added products from seaweeds and use residual fractions for conversion to biogas or other energy-carriers.


So with this setting a bit of the context, here's some notable excerpts from an article related to this:


Non-Trade Concerns in Agricultural and Environmental Economics: How J.R. Commons and Karl Polanyi can help us?

authors: Denis Barthelemy, Martino Nieddu




Some of conflict around agriculture in the Word Trade Organisation is focused on Non Trade Concerns (NTCs). In the first section of this paper, we present how the OECD connects these NTCs to the notion of multifunctionality and tries to promote its own “positive” approach. In the second section, we use J.R. Commons’s conception to propose a specific interpretation of the OECD’s position. This position implicitly constitutes a particular institutionalist practise aimed to reduce the multifunctionality of agriculture, while proposing recourse to the market as an “organising social order”. But, in a Commonsian view, trade and non trade outputs result from the same institutional process, and therefore may not be analytically separated. In the third section, we use Polanyi’s framework to suggest that NTCs cannot be considered as “non economic” items, but belong to “substantive economy” where they take place with their own regulation, resource-allocation decisions, and non market price system and in opposition and complementarity to market economy.


From agricultural market liberalisation to multifunctionality


Multifunctionality means to produce several outputs at the same time.


Thereby economists recognized that economic policies may include legitimate domestic objectives such as preserving family farms and rural landscapes or ensuring food safety, food security, and animal welfare. These concerns reflect a fear that free market expansion and globalization may undermine the provision of valued non-market amenities and cultural traditions associated with agriculture.


An implicit institutional constructivism


The OECD-recommended method attempts to make agriculture the least multifunctional possible. Furthermore, we must point out that this method needs to use an underground institutionalist method (Barthelemy and Nieddu 2004). In this, we may recognise Commons’s point of view, according to which markets are instituted. It allows us to criticize both sides of the position held by OECD and economic mainstream in this field.


To take a basic example, jointness between hog production and negative environmental externalities did not economically exist before social damage was politically and judicially recognized.


Market value can only appear after the market is instituted as the reasonable solution, given the context and time, to carry out the allocation of resources and goods among individual participants: “Commons viewed the choice of an appropriate institutional structure as the product of ‘inescapable’ societal value choices” (Schweikhardt 1988: 410).


The OECD and mainstream neo-classical economists arguments look quite paradoxical in as much as they irreducibly oppose individual and public purposes, market and public goods, and promote the former when at the same time their propositions require collective action.


The OECD and mainstream economic position … separates the values of a single process in order to create separate markets as much as possible; but this operation demands collective choices, the criteria of which cannot solely be reduced to market efficiency.


Coming back to the heart of the problem, how does one take into consideration the multiple functions of one single activity?


Agricultural multifunctionality is a good example in this field. It lets us see that there are two aspects, firstly that commodities and non trade outputs are associated, and secondly that they usually move in opposite direction, e.g., intensification of agricultural process associated with reduction of environment quality. The OECD and economist mainstream tries to avoid the debate by reducing the non trade outputs’ weight and disconnecting the relationship by erecting an absolute opposition between private and public goods. Through the Reasonable Value notion, Commons demonstrates that marketable outputs and public goods result from the same institutional process, and therefore may not be so completely opposed. Nevertheless, how does one take into account that both aspects are opposed and complementary at the same time? It is Polanyi’s approach which provides us with a way of confronting market rationality and non trade interest.


Trade and NTCs economic relationships in a synchronical approach

In “The Great Transformation” Polanyi uses analytical structure of a “double movement”. “It can be personified as the action of two organizing principles in society...The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market”, and leading to “laisser-faire and free trade”; “the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization”, associated with “protective legislation, restrictive association, and others instruments of intervention” (Polanyi [1944] 1990, 138).


The Multifunctionality debate arises in circumstances where the intensification of agricultural process under market rationality meets the need to protect the environment, heritage value and food security. The latter concerns are part of what Polanyi calls “the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature”, and the former are clearly connected with “economic liberalism”. Polanyi’s analytical structure is fitting to our subject.


How can both aspects be dealt with? Each of them is a valid “general purpose” in itself, according to Commons. Thereby they are in conflict without any “upper general purpose” to conciliate them.


However, Polanyi suggests another way. In opposition to the economic principle of formal rationality, “a sequence of acts of economizing” (Polanyi 1957, 378), he creates the “substantive economy” concept, where economy is defined as “the instituted process or culturally patterned arrangements by which a given human group provisions itself as a going concern. The focus is on the provisioning of social reproduction and on the instrumentality of economic activity vis-a?-vis the life process” (Stanfield 1989, 269). Formal economy allows only one kind of behaviour: maximise individual interest. In his substantive view of economic process, Polanyi introduces other economic ways of proceeding, such that each human being taking part in economic activity may have several behaviours. This suggests synchronical analysis in which the double movement market/protection has to be viewed not as sequential but rather as simultaneous. Each class or group takes interest in the market (the trading class of course, but working or peasant classes also in virtue of labour division and of separation of production and consumption) as well as in protection (tradesmen have families and need their future to be protected).


The synchronical approach recognizes for the same people at the same moment in time that they are involved both in market relationships and in protective non market economic relationships. European agricultural multifunctionality policy provides us with a good example.



Agricultural multifunctionality debate is of great interest because it echoes outside the realm of agriculture, in other fields of economic activities.


Synchronic analytical perspective means we have to deal with the market and non market economy together. This in turn implies two price regulation systems which react upon each other. In a sense we could speak of the mutual embeddedness of the market economy and the protective economy (for the latter we prefer the term “heritage economy”, Barthe?lemy, Nieddu and Vivien 2005).

This can be attained only when we cease to accept the prevailing one-sided conception of economic production which omits the effect every production exerts on the state of the world.




20 Jun 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

This is a jotting down of interesting things from the RRB 2014 conference. Mainly for personal use, but also to spread the knowledge love.


10th edition of the Renewable Resources and Biorefineries conference : rrbconference.com

Valladolid, Spain.


  • EU biorefinery definition, presented by Timoteo de la Fuente:

A biorefinery is characterised as an explicitly integrative, multifunctional overall concept that uses bio mass as a diverse source of raw materials for the sustainable generation of a spectrum of different intermediates and products (chemicals, materials and bioenergy/fuels) whilst including the fullest possible use of all raw material components.

Co-products can also be food or feed. These objectives necessitate the integration of a range of different methods and technologies.

The biorefinery process chain consists essentially of the pre-treatment and preparation of biomass, as well as the separation of biomass components (primary refining) and subsequent conversion and processing steps (secondary conversion).

Reference: www.bmbf.de/pub/roadmap_biorefineries.pdf (Germany)


  • A very good conclusion from poster 38, on Seaweed Biorefineries, by Paulien Harmsen et al, from Wageningen, that can be applied to biorefineries in general:

Many initiatives of seaweed valorisation focus on fermentation of the whole seaweed to low-value energy carriers such as biogas or ethanol. It will be more sustainable to produce high value-added products from seaweeds and use residual fractions for conversion to biogas or other energy-carriers.


Interesting people:

Christian Stevens - RRB organiser, academic

Richard Wool, U of Delaware engineer, biomaterials entrepreneur

Stefaan de Wildeman - biobased building blocks

Eric Beckman - engineer, medical biotech entrepreneur

Christian Kabbe - phosphate recycling

Angela Manas - Veolia, wastewater treatment innovation

Nicolas Béfort - PhD student, Economics of doubly green chemistry

More info on the interesting people:

Stefaan presentation (from another conference)

Stefaan de Wildeman


Richard Wool


Crey Bioresins, Dixon Chemicals, Texas

Crey Bioresins, Inc. develops and manufactures bio-based polymers from renewable raw materials. The company utilizes soy oil and other natural feedstocks to develop thermosetting resins that can be processed using conventional methods. Crey Bioresins is pursuing this technology with commercial partners and will be expanding its efforts into various markets.

Christian Kabbe


For the implementation to market, new technologies need to be proven capable and feasible. Within P-REX, novel and available technical solutions for phosphorus recovery and recycling will be demonstrated in full-scale.

Angela Manas

Veolia env VERI. - broken link? Creativeru.fr creativ'ERU project (2011-2014) - confidential reports that are interesting


Nicolas Béfort - PhD student, Economics of doubly green chemistry

Presentation title:

Biorefineries and the Bioeconomy in search of business models


Interesting points (which I am still chewing through)

There is a lasting variety of productive heritages : Two philosophies of chemistry and four productive heritages:

  • “Intensive deconstruction“ pathways (typical of oil industry, although conceptually well-mastered by petrochemists), consisting of:
    • PH1–Extensive thermal deconstruction to C1–C6 syngas FDC,HMF, Thermo chemical transformation of biomass into syngas and reforming.
    • PH2 - Biotechnological Extensive deconstruction to C2 – C10 EtOH, PLA, PHA Enzymatic transformation of biomass into small molecules, synthons, building blocks (for chemiosynthetic polymers e.g. PLA PHA)
  • Moderate “destructuring" pathways (i.e. : which preserve the functional properties contained in complexity of living organisms).
    • PH3 - Limited chemical modification of extracted C5 – C30. Use of naturally occurring synthons (e.g. modified fatty acids for polymers)
    • PH4 - Limited deconstruction and transformations Cx – Cn Use of plant components complexity using innovative technologies (e.g. reactive extrusion, modif. Starch, whole plant process)




These are important in how they interact. Each productive heritage claims its own use of some of the 12 Green Chemistry principles. Each PH seeks to enforce its own green identity, and the economic dimension contributes to enforce this lasting variety: Scientific competition, but satisfaction of specific needs, and complementarities of market niches

Béfort is gracious to say there are no miraculous solutions, but two systemic learning pathways, but I see a lot of tension, what he calls 'Exploratory dynamics' between the historical actors (or macro actors: Agro-industry, paper, petrochem, chem industries) and new actors (knowledge-based firms: start-ups).


His conclusions, in the four dimensions for a systemic analysis:

  1. Economic dimension:
    Green economy needs new green products and not only a greening of the existing products
  2. Technological dimension:
    Portfolio of solutions and pertinent recombination are more important than one leading technology
  3. Social dimension:
    Biofuel-based biorefineries with unsustainable scale-up ? Are non—biofuels-biorefineries possible ? adaptation to specificities of local resources and small scale production?
  4. Scientific Dimension:
    Transformation into small molecules to obtain versatile building-block or Using the complexity of renewable material?

Websites and groups doing interesting work (plus a short description)


Chemelot.nl - confidential reports that are interesting (DSM? Biobased building block) stefaan de wildeman. Also publication coming end of the year.


Veolia env VERI. - broken link? Creativeru.fr creativ'ERU project (2011-2014) - confidential reports that are interesting




Corbion ( old: DSM) - confidiential reports that are interesting

BioVale (York)






Insert your text here.


The existing 2ndgeneration biorefineries utilize less than 20% of the biomass feedstock for ethanol production, and major side-streams are produced such as pentose and lignin waste streams, that are respectively used for biogas and energy production.

Converting the carbon from these waste streams into added-value products would increase the otherwise low profitability and improve the environmental benefits of the biorefineries. The suggested project BioREFINE-2G aims at developing commercially attractive processes for efficient conversion of pentose-rich side-streams from biorefineries into dicarboxylic acids, which can be used as precursors for bio-based polymers including biodegradable polymers.


European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform (ESPP)

Sustainable management of Phosphorus is crucial for agriculture, food, industry, water and the environment. ESPP brings together companies and stakeholders to address the Phosphorus Challenge and its opportunities...

On Twitter: Phosphorus platform: @phosphorusfacts


The Biorefine project aims to provide innovative strategies for the recycling of inorganic chemicals from agro- and bio-industry waste streams. It wants to maximally close nutrient cycles by minimizing residue flows and economically valorizing the minerals that can be recovered from these residue flows.


Biotrend carries out research and develops in-house projects aiming at the production of bio-based chemicals, materials and fuels from renewable raw materials. We cover process development aspects from strain screening to fermentation optimization, process integration, intensification, de-risking and scale-up.


The future of the biobased economy begins in Central Germany: Partners from industry and research are working on the foundations of the material and energetic use of non-food biomass.

18 Jun 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0


Reactor design for wastewater biorefineries


Presented at the 10th edition of the Renewable Resources and Biorefineries conference, hosted in Valladolid, Spain, from 4 - 6 June 2014. Website: rrbconference.com

Today I want to tell you about bioreactor design for wastewater biorefineries. Immediately, two questions should pop up in your brain:

  1. Why on earth would we want to use wastewater, something that is typically very dilute, and highly variable, not to mention often dangerous to our health or just smelly, to produce commodity products, aka to make a profit? And;
  2. What makes reactors the critical point in this discussion?

First, let me tell you what we're dealing with, to set things into context. We are considering wastewaters, ranging from complex municipal wastewaters, to a variety of industrial wastewater sources that may be more defined.

We can see from the data on this slide that wastewaters can be grouped according to three factors: volume, concentration, and complexity. For the most part these waters have huge flows, in the order of mega liters every day, and can be quite dilute, with the most common components in the order of milligrams per liter. What makes them hard to deal with is the level of complexity - these waters mostly tend to be highly variable, changing concentration and perhaps also composition the whole time, and they tend to be 'receptacles', meaning that the compounds that make their way into the water is not controlled, so you can get all sorts of heavy metals or toxic chemicals in these waters. Just as these are poisonous to us, they can possibly wreck havoc with microbial populations in your bioprocess as well. Wastewater biorefineries involve the recovery of valuable products, including water and nutrients, from wastewater as an integrated system rather than a unit process, and potentially provide a link between the users of water and those responsible for its management where resources are recovered in closed loop cycles.

So why bother?

Commodity bioproducts from renewable resources are often not economically competitive, and the challenge is threefold:

  1. The costs of the raw material, which could account for up to 80% of the total cost. A lot of research, as we can see at this conference, is about using wastes as 'free' raw material, but because of the suboptimal nature of the waste, often this method may make the total cost more expensive.
  2. Energy and sterilisation costs. Work by Harding (2009) and Richardson (2011) show that this contributes not only costs but also carry significant environmental impact, something that as biorefineries we try to avoid (even if only from a PR perspective sometimes!!)
  3. Downstream processing (DSP): "Product recovery is often difficult and expensive; for some recombinant-DNA-derived products, purification accounts for 80-90% of the total processing cost." (Doran, 1995) Purifying bioproducts is really hard.

Reactor design is key to improving all three of these factors, generally, and with the dilute, complex nature of wastewater, even more so.


Conventionally, reactor optimisation aims to reduce the reactor volume to reduce the energy invested per unit product, and aims to achieve a higher biomass concentration, which results in less DSP cost per unit product. Using wastewater as raw material is exactly the opposite of this! Using wastewater gives a conveniently low cost and highly available raw material, but why could it make sense for an economically viable bioprocess?

The lower substrate concentrations in wastewater require lower oxygen supply than in conventional bioprocesses, which is associated with cost savings. With less oxygen supply required, the stirring can be more gentle, which may reduce shear stress in shear-sensitive organisms.


Wastewater may also potentially have a matching nutrient requirement, in terms of Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphate - the reason we get algae blooms in rivers downstream from sewage works, for example.


Lastly, of course, beneficiating wastewater could contribute to increased resource efficiency, and reduced environmental burden, leading to greater sustainability, but this is not what I want to focus on today.

Before I continue I have to stress though, that wastewater biorefineries only make sense IF:

  • we consider the economic competitiveness of product against competing products, (and NOT (just) environmental or social gain)
  • we allow the separation of the steps required for the cleaning of the water (polishing) from the productivity, as this allows greater flexibility. This may be separate units on the same plant, operated by the same company, or moving the (now cleaner) water to a dedicated treatment plant.

So if wastewater is indeed a promising raw material, what is needed from the reactor design?

For bioproducts from wastewater to work, reactors need to produce product in the face of large volumes and a complex medium. The resultant broth should not affect the environment adversely, and it should make downstream processing (DSP) easier.


The interesting thing about DSP is that, even as this often contributes a lot to the total processing costs, the processing units are already very efficient and well developed. Reactor design in general needs to be better designed in order for DSP to be more effective.

We can't sterilise the stream as the energy costs would just be too great, so we need a way to focus our efforts on the biomass rather than the bulk fluid. In order to achieve that, we need to decouple the hydraulic and solid residence times. In short, we need a biofilm.


Because of the typically large and continuous flows, we can't store the liquid, so the process has to be continuous or semi-continuous.


The last factor is not directly related to the reactor but more to the market and management of these systems. We can't use just a little bit of the stream. We have to use the whole stream to make it attractive for the people involved, be they industrial partners or the municipality tasked with treating the water, to consider this approach. Therefore wastewater biorefineries is best suited to commodity products like biofuels, biopolymers or biobased building blocks rather than niche products like pharmaceuticals or pigments, and this selection influences the reactor design.


Looking at this graph from Nicolella et al (2000), with the substrate concentration in kg per cubic meter (which is the same as grams per liter) on a log scale on the horizontal axis and the flow rate in cubic meters per day on a log scale on the vertical axis, we can see a few things.


Conventional bioprocessing most often occur at more than 10g/L of substrate, where the biomass is quite happy being single cells. This is fine, but not in my current interest.


We don't want to operate in this area where it says 'problematic separation', because that means expensive DSP. This area where flocs are likely to occur are also difficult to process and require huge settling ponds.


Two areas on this graph look promising though; the static biofilms operating at slightly higher flows, indicated by this blue circle, and the particle biofilms at slightly higher substrate concentration, indicated by the orange circle.


From here we can consider the complexity of the stream. Remember that we can't add anything to the stream that would affect the environment once we discharge the effluent. No nasty chemicals, and I would also say no genetically modified organisms. So we don't have a lot of scope to modify the microbial community by force. The most robust and resilient biocatalysts would occur in a mixed community, able to withstand shock loads and hostile environments. They need to survive, but remember also, they need to produce products for us. This brings me to an important point: Wastewater biorefineries is not suited to all sorts of products. The product needs to meet commodity market needs, but ALSO need to serve an ecological function to the bioorganisms - it needs to give them a competitive advantage.


In terms of reactor design, the reactor needs to help provide this friendly environment, and to an extent that will depend on individual design requirements.


Next we need to enable effective downstream processing. We need to be able to get the product out easily. This means we don't want to sieve through all the millions of litres, but we also don't want to dissemble the reactor every time we need to get the product out - remember, we are working with continuous flows! Now, most DSP works with phase separation, gases from liquids like biogas, solids from liquids through precipitation, etc. Thus, we need this product produced in a different phase for easy DSP, and we need a general reactor design that makes it possible to get to the product.


I considered well-established, proven reactors generally used in wastewater treatment in this work, and this product recovery was the criteria that excluded most of these general reactor designs available. Only three designs remained potentially feasible. Of course, new research designs may eventually add to these.


The first is the rotating biological contactor, or RBC, and the second is the trickling filter, both very old and traditional reactor designs used in wastewater treatment. They both operate best at higher flows and slightly lower substrate concentrations.


The third one is a much newer technology called aerobic granular sludge, or AGS, which prefers slightly higher substrate concentrations, and is of a modular design to accommodate the slightly lower flow requirement.


I will now briefly consider each of these in turn to illustrate the basic idea, but bear in mind that the final reactor designs rely on accurate sizing, the eventual stream and product selected, and so on.

The trickle tower consists of media that allows biofilm growth on or through them, and the water flowing down across this biofilm. Trickle towers used to be constructed with stone, which limited their height and thus residence time, and the sheer weight of the stones crushed the lower materials leading to eventual failure and clogging. These days plastic and other light-weight media resolved this problem, as seen in the image top right, but one has to be careful about which media is selected to effectively enable product recovery.


Verdict: We included trickle towers in my work as neither of the other two reactors I talk about here could quite cope with my microbe's requirement for oxygen. Trickle towers allow growth at the air-liquid interface, but it remains to be seen if product recovery will be adequate.

The rotating biological contactor, or RBC, is a partially-submerged attached growth bioreactor, with flat, circular disks turning slowly on a horizontal shaft. It is mechanically simple, has a low energy requirement, a modular character and is easy to operate. Currently, however, this limits the process flexibility and range of wastewaters, but I believe that targeted research can improve this greatly.


Traditionally the corrugated disks that we saw in the trickle tower have been used, but this may cause problems of unbalanced growth which results in mechanical wear. Disk innovation is improving this aspect: this image in the bottom left shows an alternative, hybrid model that I think gives a more sophisticated biofilm growing area.


Product recovery can occur via removal of individual disks, or of a shear force, either by a physical spatula sort of thing or through strong periodic air sparging.


Verdict: I think the RBC is very well suited to the biorefinery concept with a lot of flexibility. It is my 'old faithful'.

The last reactor design discussed here is the aerobic granular sludge reactor developed at TU Delft and which, if the hype is to be believed, ushers in a revolution in wastewater treatment, and I think may do the same for the wastewater biorefinery concept.


The AGS consists of granules, defined as “aggregates of microbial origin, which do not coagulate under reduced hydrodynamic shear (also known as ‘sludge bulking’) and which settle significantly faster than activated sludge flocs: 15 seconds vs 20 minutes (de Kreuk et al 2007), as seen in the image at bottom right. This allows efficient biomass retention making compact reactors with integrated sludge separation feasible. It is a sequentially operated batch reactor (SBR), so fed discontinuously, and so requires modular construction.


Verdict: I am very excited about the AGS technology, but it seems to require specific skills in operation and is very new. I do think it comes closest at bringing bioprocess engineering into the realm of wastewater treatment. It is not well suited to very dilute waters, and requires low amounts of settling inerts, which tend to accumulate in the system. It is the 'supermodel' of my reactors, temperamental but sophisticated and sexy.

Two examples where TU Delft have used this reactor in a biorefinery type context are a partnership with Pacques, and a partnership with the chocolate maker Mars to produce biopolymers from wastewater.

In conclusion, I discussed some aspects that need to be considered for bioreactor design if one wants to use wastewater as raw material. I think these considerations may be useful for general reactor design as well. For bioproducts from wastewater to work, reactors need to produce product in the face of large volumes and a complex medium. The resultant broth should not affect the environment adversely, and it should make downstream processing easier.


More generally, reactor design needs to appreciate the wider system. As a unit process, they need to be optimised for overall system performance, and not designed for maximised productivity in isolation of other units downstream. It is also critical to remember that for this to work in the long term we need to consider the ECONOMICAL viability of the product against competing products, rather than the environmental or social gain, right from the start, right from the design stages.

We have just starting a project exploring the global state of wastewater biorefineries, what wastewaters are suitable, what products could be produced using this concept, what is currently being done. Any comments, input or suggestions would be very much appreciated.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge the South African National Research Foundation and the Water Research Commission for their generous funding, and multiple mentors, only some of whom are listed here.

and, Thank you very much for your kind attention.



  • Harrison S & Verster B, 2014. Reactor Design For Wastewater Biorefineries: Recovering Value While Producing Cleaner Water , article in draft.
  • WRC report due to be published soon
  • Nicolella C, van Loosdrecht MCM, Heijnen SJ, 2000. Particle-based biofilm reactor technology. TibTech, 18, 312-320.
  • Kleerebezem R & van Loosdrecht MCM, 2007. Mixed culture biotechnology for bioenergy production. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 18(3), 207-212.
  • Harding, K.G., 2009. A generic approach to environmental assessment of microbial bioprocesses through Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), PhD dissertation, University of Cape Town.
  • Richardson, C., 2011. Investigating the role of reactor design for maximum environmental benefit of algal oil for biodiesel. M.Sc dissertation, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town.
01 Jun 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

"water is a cycle like everything in nature and we need to help that cycle flow. "


Bernelle Verster gave a talk at MediaMatic, Amsterdam, on Thursday 12 June 2014.


It was part of a theme about using water and its ecology as resource. Other guests were Ivan Henrique who brought his algae eating robot. And we loved the seaweed burger which was served by the Dutch Weed Burger.


More info:


We're really excited about this, as the talks are hosted by Mediamatic Bio Industry, a bio-cultural lab exploring the possibilities of fungal material and other bio-based materials for design, science and art.


The Mediamatic Bio-talks is a monthly lecture series that invites artists and designers to present and elaborate on their work concerning bio-based research and design.


Ek es die liefde

Ek es die haat

Ek es die hoer

Ek es die staat


Haal een van ons weg

Dan is die ander niks wert

Ek es die toeval

Ek es die lot

Ek es die duiwel

En ik ben God


Ons is al saam van die begin van die tijd

Ons ken mekaar al een eeuwigheid

Ons is een tweeling uit dieselfde buik

Jij gaan nooit weet wie is wie

Als jij niet goed kijk

We often consider water as good, and waste as bad. We have a highly emotional connection to water, and are disgusted by waste like shit. We consider water sensual, but the people and institutions who have to look after our water bodies, and our wastes, as almost unmentionable.  We consider water as life itself, but yet, it is the nutrients in water, the impurities that constitute life. You can't separate them and still have the miracle that is this planet.


We consider rain or even floods as coincidental, a lucky occurrence, a good omen, a blessing, but wastes and green, rotting rivers and dams as fate, or at best punishment for evil deeds, an inconvenient, undesirable side effect. In short, I would say that we equate wastes with evil, with the devil, and our religious reverence to water, makes it holy, godlike.


And yet, these two have been together forever, and the only way we can make sense of these two 'extremes' coming together is in a cycle - or an ecosystem.  In reality you have to look really closely to tell them apart, and understand how they are related. That is what we at the Centre for Bioprocessing Engineering Research, CeBER, do.

At CeBER we focus on many things, with the overarching focus to try to make the biotech advances make sense to engineers, and to make it economically, socially and environmentally viable. Today I want to focus on three things that I think has the most potential for collaboration with artists, designers, creatives and other interested people. These are Biominerals, Algae, and my work, Wastewater Biorefineries.





One of the main research areas in CeBER is bioleaching, a process where microbes are used as biocatalysts to convert metal compounds into their soluble forms. This leaching process is an alternative economical method for the recovery of metals such as copper, zinc and gold from low-grade mineral ores, with low investment and operation costs.





CeBER focuses on algal cultivation, harvesting and processing for the production of carotenoids, nutraceuticals, lipids and energy products. Maximising lipid productivity through optimising the uptake of light and CO2 is critical to systems scale-up. Through the biorefinery concept, inventory analysis and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), we identify key contributions required for feasible algal processes.

Wastewater biorefineries


“A biorefinery is characterised as an explicitly integrative, multifunctional overall concept that uses biomass as a diverse source of raw materials for the sustainable generation of a spectrum of different intermediates and products (chemicals, materials and/or bioenergy/fuel) whilst including the fullest possible use of all raw material components.”

- EU definition (Timoteo de la Fuente)

What do we mean with wastewater? Wastewater is basically any sort of dirty water. It can range from complex municipal wastewaters, to a variety of industrial wastewater sources that may be more defined. We can see from the data on the slide above that wastewaters can be grouped according to three factors: volume, concentration, and complexity. For the most part these waters have huge flows, in the order of mega liters every day, and can be quite dilute, with the most common components in the order of milligrams per liter. What makes them hard to deal with is the level of complexity - these waters mostly tend to be highly variable, changing concentration and perhaps also composition the whole time, and they tend to be 'receptacles', meaning that the compounds that make their way into the water is not controlled, so you can get all sorts of heavy metals or toxic chemicals in these waters. Just as these are poisonous to us, they can possibly wreck havoc with microbial populations in your bioprocess as well. Wastewater biorefineries involve the recovery of valuable products, including water and nutrients, from wastewater as an integrated system rather than a unit process, and potentially provide a link between the users of water and those responsible for its management where resources are recovered in closed loop cycles.


I don't want to go into details here, but the reactors - the homes the biological creaturs live in - is key to this whole concept. If you are interested, I have posted the link for the presentation I gave at the Renewable Resources and Biorefineries (RRB) conference last week (5 June 2014) at the bottom of this post. Below are some pictures of how these reactors may look like when they are working at larger scales, and beneath that, some pictures of my experiments - quite different!

This image above is a process flow diagram, and shows what types of potential products can be gained from wastewater biorefineries, and where they might come from. This is rather complicated, and the basis for my PhD. I won't bother to explain what it all means, I just want you to see that there are lots of opportunities!


Saan es ons sterk

Alleen es ons sleg

Jij mag ons niet skei nie

Ons es aan mekaar vas

Soos whiskey en water in dieselfde glas


Why am I here, speaking to you, creatives and passionate people who may have no background or even interest in wastewater? I want to share my dream with you, and I need your help. I strongly believe that scientists, and engineers, on their own, achieve very little. Sure, our stuff works (most of the time), but we can't make beautiful solutions, things that draw people in and make them feel comfortable. I think it is a HUGE opportunity to have soooo much water at treatment plants that we can do the most beautiful things with. Imagine a fully functional engineering plant - a wastewater biorefinery - that is so safe and so beautiful that the public, animals, birds are allowed on it. Imagine landscape art everywhere, cascading waterfalls and fountains, and even watersports perhaps! Yes, these treatment plants can treat water to such a clean level, if well managed. And if it is in the public eye and mind, then it creates so much more incentive to be well managed! Plus the products we can produce from the waste can provide the necessary income, along with other activities like tourism, sport, and cultural activities, perhaps, to maintain the site financially. Things work better when people are connected. Water, and the nutrients and things in it, works as a connected cycle: We should too.


I now want to show you just some of the products that can be produced from wastewaters (most of these are at very early research scale), and then some landscape art pieces with water from around the world. The slide above shows three examples of water art from Ned Kahn.

The Murinsel in Graz, Austria. It is a floating tea cafe, but this could be a biorefinery. It could be anything!

Image source: www.summerschool.tugraz.at/graz-info

Website: www.murinselgraz.at


Lorna Jordan's work at Renton, Washington (above) was the first example of beautiful sewage works I found, see her website here: http://lornajordan.com/Artist.asp?ArtistID=20609&Akey=2C782FMS

Other links I found:

"The Herbert Bayer Earthwork, the Robert Morris Earthwork, theGreenRiver Natural Resources Area, and Lorna Jordan's Waterworks Gardenare the destinations you’ll visit on the Earthworks Tour."



West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant by Danadjieva & Koenig Associates (image on the right)



Lastly, I want to share my approach. I very much believe in the open source movement. I do not support patents. I believe there are alternative ways that can complement our current approaches. These include the Creative Commons movement, the Arduino movement, the thinking behind Biomimicry... and others, like the OpenMaterials initiative, and even the Misfit Economy.


Ons maak samen oorlog

Ons maak saam plesier

Ek es van Holland

En ek es van hier


It is said that the next wars will be about water. I think that may be so, but it's more useful to have fun with water, together. The technologies are there, and we can share the skills. I think South Africa and the Netherlands have a particularly rosy future ahead of us - we both have to be very conscious of water, for complementary reasons. We have a historic partnership, for better or for worse, we understand each other.


So, to end, I would like you to think back on how this talk started, and turn some of those ideas upside down, play with your preconceptions a bit, dream of what could be.

Ek es die toeval

En ek es die lot

Ek es die duiwel

En ek es God

OK, OK, some of that was for dramatic effect. I don't think we need to hate anything, it's part of the bigger picture. What I DO want, is to move away from this either/or attitude, and move into both...and.


Below is one example how we can think about this, that Ger Bergkamp shared at the African Utility Week in 2012.

Thank you!


Lyrics from Stef Bos 'Die duiwel en god'

CeBER website: www.ceber.uct.ac.za

RRB presentation: merahmas.co.za/blog/reactors


25 Mar 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster 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.

13 Mar 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

While I'm slaving away at the PhD, I thought I'd start linking my favourite books to do with the company in the blog. That way, you have reference literature and can slowly build up an idea of what I'm planning of doing...

Measurement, Monitoring, Modelling and Control of Bioprocesses


Series: Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology, Vol. 132

Mandenius, Carl-Fredrik, Titchener-Hooker, Nigel J (Eds.)

2013, X, 285 p. 74 illus., 53 illus. in color.


Link: http://www.springer.com/chemistry/biotechnology/book/978-3-642-36837-0


image from: http://kedepot.blogspot.com/2013/10/measurement-monitoring-modelling-and.html


Table of Contents

  • Automated Measurement and Monitoring of Bioprocesses: Key Elements of the M3C Strategy, by Bernhard Sonnleitner.
  • Automatic Control of Bioprocesses, by Marc Stanke, Bernd Hitzmann.
  • An Advanced Monitoring Platform for Rational Design of Recombinant Processes, by G. Striedner, K. Bayer.
  • Modelling Approaches for Bio-Manufacturing Operations, by Sunil Chhatre.
  • Extreme Scale-Down Approaches for Rapid Chromatography Column Design and Scale-Up During Bioprocess Development, by Sunil Chhatre.
  • Applying Mechanistic Models in Bioprocess Development, by Rita Lencastre Fernandes, Vijaya Krishna Bodla, Magnus Carlquist, Anna-Lena Heins, Anna Eliasson Lantz, Gürkan Sin and Krist V. Gernaey.
  • Multivariate Data Analysis for Advancing the Interpretation of Bioprocess Measurement and Monitoring Data, by Jarka Glassey.
  • Designof Pathway-Level Bioprocess Monitoring and Control Strategies Supported by Metabolic Networks, by Inês A. Isidro, Ana R. Ferreira, João J.Clemente, António E. Cunha, João M. L. Dias, Rui Oliveira.
  • Knowledge Management and Process Monitoring of Pharmaceutical Processes in the Quality by Design Paradigm, by Anurag S Rathore, Anshuman Bansal, Jaspinder Hans.
  • The Choice of Suitable Online Analytical Techniques and Data Processing for Monitoring of Bioprocesses, by Ian Marison, Siobhán Hennessy, Róisín Foley, Moira Schuler, Senthilkumar Sivaprakasam, Brian Freeland.
22 Jan 2014 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

San Francisco Wastewater talks shit

(still in draft, I'm still a bit slow on the catching up...)

image credit: Jacques Marais Media

"Without a functioning water and sewer system, you are essentially left with a third-world country," says Tyrone Jue, SFPUC's [San Francisco Public Utilities Commission] director of communications. "Parts of our system date back to the Gold Rush. Parts are seismically unreliable. You can see the effects of climate change on our sewer system, with the rising sea level. But [unlike tap water],which is a tangible resource, the [only] experience people have with the sewer system is the flushing of their toilet. Things going down the drain, and they probably don't even think about it."


"With the sewer system, we've always been playing with the problem of:how do we make a hidden system visible to people?" he explains. "We knew a traditional boring public PSA [public service announcement] wouldn't resonate. It hasn't resonated with people. If we wanted to spark interest, conversation, and to drive participation ... to rebuild and update this system, we had to take a different approach."


"We wanted to leverage conversations that are already happening in our city into people's daily lives, and we knew that the only way we could do that was to not take ourselves so seriously," Jue says. "That's a big challenge when you're coming from a government bureaucracy.


The campaign is spreading, too: @SFWater attracts regular conversations with public utilities commissions in other cities like Washington, D.C., and recently the team posted anapp created for them, totally unprompted, by a local tech developer,called swir.ly, that maps where the hypothetical contents of a user'stoilet flush might end up. The chatter kicked up around the renovationsis upping the stakes for public utilities and civic engagement in anirreverent digital era.


Read the full article here:


Give San Francisco Water a bit of love here:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SFWater

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sfwater


image credit: Jacques Marais Media

02 Apr 2013 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

I had to submit a project abstract for the very fluid PhD. I like this one.


The image on the right is from an Economist article about the complexities emerging from collaborative consumption, click on the pic to access it (will open in new window).


Project abstract:


Wastewater biorefineries move away from the traditional wastewater treatment objectives. This concept considers not only the efficient product recovery of both the bioproduct and water product, but also needs to take into account the complexities of having many, very different stakeholders engage in what approaches a hyper-networked ecosystem economy.


Wastewater biorefineries rely on the irruption of a set of powerful technologies and dynamic new industries accompanied by a facilitating infrastructure. This project looks at bioprocessing in a non-sterile environment as one such technology-infrastructure, and uses the production of biopolymer from Bacillus-consortia as case study. But the techonology-infrastructure is not sufficient. “The old organizational models cannot cope with or take full advantage of the new potential. The new possibilities and their requirements also unleash a profound transformation in 'the way of doing things' across the whole economy and beyond. Thus each technological revolution inevitably induces a paradigm shift.” (Perez, 2002).


This project also considers how this way of doing things is emerging and what the engineering industry can learn from and contribute to it. “The convergence of social networks, a renewed belief in the importance of community, pressing environmental concerns and cost consciousness are moving us away from top-heavy, centralized and controlled forms of consumerism towards one of sharing, aggregation, openness and cooperation” (Botsman & Rogers, 2010).


Further reading:

Carlota Perez, 2002, Technological revolutions and financial capital: the dynamics of bubbles and golden ages, Cheltenham, UK.

Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, 2010, What's mine is yours: the rise of collaborative consumption, Harper Business, New York.


And then the super technical bit if you're into that sort of thing:


This work carries significance in arguing for a different approach to waste, and serves to introduce the discussion on how to use significant infrastructural limitations to the advantage of wastewater biorefineries. Challenges in optimising the system rather than individual unit processes are highlighted, which include the different hegemonies present in the interface between environmental and bioprocess engineering disciplines. This review particularly considers the aspects to consider when reactors are designed as unit processes in a wastewater biorefinery, and contributes to a better understanding of reactor selection in areas where systems are required to meet the needs of biomass retention, processing of large volumes and integrated product recovery.


This project is concerned with proving the technology to produce valuable products from dilute waste streams, and less concerned about the performance and application of the produced material.

01 Mar 2013 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

Book highlight: Raj Patel - Stuffed and Starved

2007, Portobello Books


Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System

Half the world is malnourished, the other half obese—both symptoms of the corporate food monopoly. To show how a few powerful distributors control the health of the entire world, Raj Patel conducts a global investigation, traveling from the “green deserts” of Brazil and protester-packed streets of South Korea to bankrupt Ugandan coffee farms and barren fields of India. What he uncovers is shocking—the real reasons for famine in Asia and Africa, an epidemic of farmer suicides, and the false choices and conveniences in supermarkets. Yet he also finds hope—in international resistance movements working to create a more democratic, sustainable, and joyful food system.

From seed to store to plate,Stuffed and Starvedexplains the steps to regain control of the global food economy, stop the exploitation of farmers and consumers, and rebalance global sustenance.


10 steps towards a better food system:

  1. Transform our tastes
  2. Eat locally and seasonally
  3. Eat agroecologically
  4. Support locally owned businesses
  5. All workers have the right to dignity
  6. Profound and comprehensive rural change
  7. Living wages for all
  8. Support for a sustainable architecture for food
  9. Snapping the food system's bottleneck
  10. Owning and providing restitution for the injustices of the past and present.



MST: Brazil’s Landless Worker's Movement

La Via Campesina : International Peasant Movement

17 Dec 2012 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

A PhD report that could just be my proudest achievement to date has just been submitted. This is the closing remarks section. The Executive Summary was posted in a previous post. If you want the full report, please let me know.




The concept of industrial metabolism requires the maximisation of resource productivity by ensuring that all resources exploited provide the maximum possible products and services. This approach is a key premise to achieving sustainable systems for our society and minimising the environmental burden associated with anthropogenic acitivity. In addressing this, it is valuable to view wastes, including wastewater, as a potential raw material resource. This approach can be used through the wastewater biorefinery concept which is centred on two major outcomes: the treatment of wastewater to the desired water quality and the simultaneous production of products of value, as either commodity or energy products. Unit operations in such a wastewater biorefinery include reactors that can reduce nutrient loads in wastewater in a variety of environments, while producing a range of valuable bioproducts that can potentially sustain jobs, meet commodity needs and fund capacity building through their revenue. This review addresses the requirements of such reactor systems in which microbial bioprocesses are used for the production of commodity polymers while reducing nutrient loads. 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 and culture conditions and product which contribute a selective advantage to the microbial population. Hence, wastewater biorefineries are not suitable for all bioproducts. The overall project considers this application in terms of the model system in which microbial communities enriched for Bacillus species are used for the production of poly-glutamic acid.

Poly-glutamic acid (PGA) is hypothesized to fulfil an ecological role to give Bacillus (or other species producing PGA) a competitive advantage that can be exploited for bioproduction through microbial community engineering in wastewater biorefineries. The reactor design is crucial to achieve this microbial community engineering. In order to achieve the production of relatively pure, N-rich PGA from wastewater, the following need to be addressed:

  • Establishment of Bacillus as the dominant organism in the mixed microbial community used for PGA production;
  • Determining a reactor configuration suited to retention of biomass while processing large volumes of dilute wastewater;
  • Selection of a downstream process train that takes cognisance of the dilute product environment, and intercalates with the reactor system in the optimal manner;
  • Selection of a reactor configuration and associated downstream processing unit operations that are appropriate for the production of a low value product in dilute solution.

Two reactor designs have been highlighted that are proposed to fulfill this function as well as contribute to effective product recovery: the Aerobic Granular Sludge (AGS) process, and the hRBC process.


The AGS process is defined by the characteristics of the sludge particles. The granules are defined as "aggregates of microbial origin, which do not coagulate under reduced hydrodynamic shear ('sludge bulking') and which settle significantly faster than activated sludge flocs" (15 sec vs 20 min) (de Kreuk et al 2007a).


The hRBC process is a modified Rotating Biological Contactor (RBC) system. RBC's are non-submerged, attached growth bioreactors, similar to trickling filters, with circular media mounted (approx 3.6m in diameter for standard units) on a horizontal shaft, partially submerged (typically 40%) in the wastewater, and rotated at a speed of one to six revolutions per minute (Grady et al 2011). The circular support media is modified to form a high surface area mesh disc to support an active biofilm.


These reactors were selected for detailed discussion because the management of biofilm detachment - and hence product recovery - are controllable. The support material of the hRBC is relatively planar, while the granular system does not have a carrier, with settling properties that make product recovery possible. In addition, the biofilm zonation in both reactor types (allowing for heterotrophy, nitrification, phosphate removal and denitrification zones intrinsic in the biofilm) is advantageous.


The AGS process is operated as a Sequencing Batch Reactor (SBR). It is a time-oriented process that can be designed and operated to simulate virtually all conventional continuous-flow activated sludge systems, from contact stabilization to extended aeration, making it a useful approach in a laboratory environment. This aspect, combined with the rapid sedimentation velocity possible with aerobic granules allows product formation and downstream processing to form part of the reactor design at discrete steps (Johnson, 2010).


The hRBC process can accommodate a wider range of substrate loads and is a simpler process to operate than the AGS process. The combination of the meshed internal structure and planar disk macro structure gives product recovery options that compliment the AGS process, and the overall operation of the hRBC is thought to promote Bacillus dominance.


PGA is generally accepted to be a product excreted into the bulk solution and not even weakly associated with the biomass. Several biofilm-based approaches allow cultivation at relatively low flow rates and may be used to minimise the separation of the weakly associated polymer from the biomass. In terms of considering PGA recovery, three potential scenarios have to be considered:

  1. PGA is excreted into the bulk solution and is not associated with the biomass at all
  2. PGA is excreted, but weakly associated with the biomass. This association is easily disrupted
  3. PGA is excreted, but strongly associated with the biomass. Significant physical or chemical means need to be employed to disrupt this association.

The AGS and hRBC processes will have different utility towards PGA product recovery depending on which of these scenarios come into play. Scenario 1 and 2 are more suited to the hRBC, while scenario 3 favours the AGS process.


This work carries significance in arguing for a different approach to waste, and serves to introduce the discussion on how to use significant infrastructural limitations to the advantage of wastewater biorefineries. Challenges in optimising the system rather than individual unit processes are highlighted, which include the different hegemonies present in the interface between environmental and bioprocess engineering disciplines. This review particularly considers the aspects to consider when reactors are designed as unit processes in a wastewater biorefinery, and contributes to a better understanding of reactor selection in areas where systems are required to meet the needs of biomass retention, processing of large volumes and integrated product recovery.


This work has broader applicability by complementing current research to understand and better control erosion and abrasion while minimising sloughing (considered in this project as product recovery). The remaining challenge in the engineering of these wastewater biorefinery systems, as with the wider body of work on biofilm processes is directed towards the control of biofilm structure and morphology, which depends on, and at the same time affects, the reactor hydrodynamics and mass transfer characteristics.

11 Dec 2012 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

An article written by Alex Nash in 2007. Well worth a read.





Water Provision for the Poor

Though it is crucial to life, agriculture and the world economy, water is probably one of the most mismanaged goods on Earth. But while current policies have left one billion people without clean water and 2.6 billion without basic sanitation facilities, many oppose practical measures to change this situation – because of ideology.


Activists tend to make broad assertions with regards to water privatisation: that most people do not benefit from it; that the private sector is inefficient; it marginalises the poor; and, most crudely, that privatization is morally objectionable.


Anti-privatisation ideologues are quick to forget that many of the world’s poorest people rely on small private operators for water – or that there are numerous successful cases of market-driven water management. Too often, they obfuscate facts and define terms in a way that suits their ideological stance.


The reality of many state-run utilities is not pretty as, too often, officials see their position as an opportunity – indeed a right – to loot the utility. While privatisation is certainly not guaranteed to be a success in countries with poor governance, publicly managed utilities are not just at risk of failing, they are virtually guaranteed to do so.


Anti-privatisation lobbyists have not helped the world’s poorest people with their ideological aversion to profit. Quite the opposite. By hastening the retreat of the alternative private model and the accountability it brings to the public sector, these well-meaning public provision ideologues have left the poor high and dry.

Some excerpts (biased toward supporting my views - rather read the article than draw hasty conclusions!):


"People in developing countries are no different from those in industrialised ones – all over the world, people really only care about the service’s reliability and affordability."



"The fact that water is necessary for life does not mean it is wrong to profit from it. The same argument could be advanced for food, or indeed any economic activity. If one believes that the private sector should not exist, or that profit is unethical, as some participants in this debate did, then we are no longer talking about the practicalities of water provision."



"Private management will not solve a serious governance problem, or eliminate corruption, or make the poor wealthy. But there is one fundamental difference between a privately and publicly managed utility that is obvious in countries with very poor governance. While public utilities are accountable to no-one and are therefore systematically looted, private management is forced to turn a profit and publish their accounts – it is simply impossible to steal funds, maintain no transparency or accountability and expect to stay in business. Before forced privatisation was attempted, soft loans were extended to publicly managed utilities. Lenders started to impose conditions after decades of public failure, not before. This was misconstrued at the conference when it was claimed that public failure was a result of these changes, rather than the incentive for them. Once again, people manipulated facts to fit their ideology.


I agree that in countries with such poor governance, privatisation is certainly not guaranteed to be a success. Poorly regulated private companies may not always serve the public interest. However under such circumstances, publicly managed utilities are not just at risk of failing, they are virtually guaranteed to do so."



"I was interested to read an article by one of the anti-private participants about the utility he works for in Recife, Brazil. He noted that prior to the threat of privatisation and the resulting political shake-up, the water utility was “untouchable”. It was only when private management was raised as an option that the public management was finally reformed and the utility started to deliver a commendable service. He sees this as proof that public utilities can do a good job and I completely agree with him. But I also see it as proof of the benefits of giving municipal governments (and therefore the people) the choice of provider."



"So yes, it is possible that more will be removed under the private system, but it is also possible that less will be removed, and shareholders will make a loss. By having a variable amount of money which is removed (as distinct from a constant amount under the public model), risk is passed to the shareholders and management as well as incentives to deliver a good service. To state that the private system is inherently worse because of this extraction of “profits” is very misleading and betrays an ideological obsession with public service provision.


A much more sensible discussion would be one about the levels of risk, return and service involved in the equity (private) model. Very simply – what are you getting for your money?"



"Instead of dismissing the number of connections made, it would have been better for private-sector opponents to count connections not made as a result of their lobbying. They’ve done plenty to stop private watercompanies making any money in the developing world, but what have they done to get people connected?" (And I would add, in a sustainable, scalable way)



"The net result of their well-meaning efforts is a staunch defence of the corrupt, lazy or incompetent utility managers and mayors. It is a defence of the comfortable middle classes in developing countries who have cheap water while their poorer compatriots queue and walk all day.


Before these people flit off to their next cause célèbre, I recommend that they actually go out and connect someone to the water network. That they see what’s involved, and how these utilities are run. That they talk to people in slums, gain their confidence and ask the awkward questions about bribes, nepotism and corruption. It’s not all colourful fabrics, funky worldmusic and the heady romance of solidarity against the evil multinationals. They might just learn a few uncomfortable truths which will turn their black and white world into shades of grey."


09 Oct 2012 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

I made this prezi for the annual, most nerve-racking event of the year – I can argue complex matters with men and kings alike, but the place I am supposed to feel safest leaves my voice shaking and my hands trembling. This prezi still lacks detail, I hope to flesh it out with the next report, but I also think it is a nice overview of where I am…

The online version of the prezi can be found here.

Survival of the Fittingest – 22 August 2012


At last year’s research day, held at the Atlantic Imbizo, on 30 March 2011, I stated that what I was trying to do in the lab was fundamentally not transferable to the real world. I ended with this point: “This talk was horribly generic, an indication of the chaos and search for meaning in every one of the areas in my life. But I cannot get away from the conviction that these areas have to be addressed as a unit. After 4 years, I don’t know how to do that, but I won’t stop trying.”

Then Prof Noakes presented after me about the value of coaches (or academic supervisors), trust, self-belief (which I’m not good at, at all) and then said ‘the lady that just spoke, will make it because she said she would’. Those were words I really needed to hear. He said ‘How do you know how good you are if nobody tells you?’ and noted that this giving of affirmation is against our culture.


Last year’s research day was two weeks before our first TEDxCapeTown event, an immensely personal experience. We’ve just had our second TEDxCapeTown event, where both Tim and Sue [Harrison, my supervisor] spoke.

The reason why I mention TEDxCapeTown, an independently organised TED event, is that “TED forces experts to make their lives’ work comprehensible to the masses, and consequentially captures the attention of a much broader audience. It’s a win win that’s worth replicating.” – I quote Lexi Lewton.


After that day, after TEDxCapeTown, I dropped everything I ever knew, and dove headlong into shit. Figuratively, but I think I might literally do it by mistake soon, because I’m now on site at the Athlone sewage works, a 100+ ML/day plant, to me, an unfathomable volume and flowrate of fluid.

My life is still in chaos, possibly more so than before, because it is at a much bigger scale. But now, there is meaning.


I started the project because I want to produce a polymer, to change a small part of the polymer industry.But now the PhD has become an exercise in how to address various scales of issues as a unit.


Let me show you my thinking:

The concept of a wastewater biorefinery is built around the overarching ability to function in the face of significant infrastructural limitations, and, through its operation, improve these limitations.”


It has a dual objective: To produce a valuable bioproduct while improving the wastestream used to produce it. In order to achieve this, we need to combine aspects of environmental and industrial biotechnology.

Environmental Biotechnology is characterised by its desire to turn waste harmless, to minimise environmental burden.


From discussions I’ve had with people in the field who are using environmental biotech for beneficiation, for example waste to biogas, this field seems to have a strong developmental focus, and what I call blind altruism. The solutions are largely targeted AT the people and environment, not WITH them, and there is no sustainable business model.

Industrial biotechnology on the other hand strikes me as excessively capitalist, selfish. It is a blind chase for profit at the expense of the bigger picture, and often just a growing bubble – look at how the biofuels industry collapsed. The industry has suffered from investors losing trust in the promise of biotech, and most players are struggling to get investment, and battling to scale.


Where environmental biotech is a soft, accommodative field getting caught up in trying to incorporate everything, please everyone and ‘save the world’, industrial biotech suffers from being too narrow minded. For now these are just my opinions, and they are definitely not applicable in every part of the two fields, but I’m willing to be quoted on them, certainly in the context of organic waste management.

Fortunately I’m not alone in trying to combine these mindsets – there are significant driving forces bringing these different mindsets closer together, starting a conversation. These include climate change, greater exploitation of resources, which are themselves of poorer quality. See as example the reduction of soil fertility and agricultural productivity.


The tensions we see arising now is best described by Alan Brent’s quote on Industrial Ecology: “industrial ecology … integrates multiple, mutually exclusive ontologies, and is thus conceptually complex in ways that are new and particularly challenging” (Brent et al 2008). These tensions inform the organisational institutional constraints, they define the process and in turn this informs the technology, whether it will be adapted.

Technology is important, because without it, what you are trying to do is impossible. But we generally place waaaayyyyy too much emphasis on technology though. The process and the way things fit together MUST inform how the technology works. Previously I called this ‘Design for Down-Stream Processing (DSP)’, but now I believe that it goes far wider than this.

One needs to start with positioning your project in the big picture, and see how it fits, to a greater or lesser extent. I believe that even if you are doing fundamental, abstract research, you need to spend a little bit of time on this. An applied engineer like me spends most of her time on this. Understanding the big picture informs every decision you take on the micro scale, and makes it possible for others to create valuable partnerships with you. It ensures that you don’t inadvertently exclude people by design.

One thing I’ve noticed so far is the dialogue around sanitation.’Pro-poor sanitation’, as opposed to ‘appropriate technology’ illustrates ways of thinking that made me do a lot of thinking around western ways of management, and patriarchy. So I’m now finding my feminist self, giving a whole new meaning to being ‘full of shit’. This is not doing my relationships any favours.


Moving towards a particular process, on a full plant scale.

Early on in the project I had to face a lot of criticism about the priorities of a wastewater treatment works. I had to continuously defend the ‘safe effluent’ as top priority. I just could not manage to create a product and guarantee that the effluent will be safe for discharge at the end. This is why a process is so important – now I can include a polishing step, that adds value in its own right, to make sure the water gets clean. I can get people to think beyond their fear of unsafe discharge because there is an additional step that ensures this. I have to design the technology, however, to make sure that I don’t compromise the next step.


At the same time, having an earlier step that takes my unit process into account, not only makes my process more resilient, but may even provide energy that makes my process more cost effective. In this way the units ‘look out for each other’, and improve each other’s operation.


OK, so now that I am comfortable that there is a need, and a space and value for the unit process that can produce my polymer, and that my unit process will not damage the area around it, let’s focus on the technology itself.


I am working with wastewater, so many of the assumptions around conventional biotech does not apply. The fluid is very dilute, so sterilising for the low yields is not appropriate. Instead of the best organism, with the highest yield, we need to instead work with the organisms most capable of surviving in these conditions, build the reactors that best fit the system while giving the organisms a competitive advantage, while allowing for the most appropriate product recovery. It becomes about being the most responsive to each other, being most fitting, and not being the best. It’s a rather feminine discussion, don’t you think? All about relationships.

I acknowledge that this is not suitable to all systems or products. In my project, the important points are that I am working with a retained biomass system, and I am only interested in the surface of the biofilm. I looked at what reactor environment bugs are generally happiest in, under the most likely flows and substrate concentrations.

However, having said that, the rest of the biofilm still needs to be considered for nutrient removal. This meant I needed a thicker biofilm. I also looked at how best to get product out of these reactors, so the surface of the biofilm had to be easily accessible. These considerations narrowed my selection to the two reactors I have chosen.

So a quick introduction to my bacterium, ‘Pirelli’ [look at my previous blogpost - 'PhD, a love story, sortof' to see the thinking behind the names]. Pirelli likes growing at the air water interface, which means that the reactors I have chosen is not 100% suitable for it, but we’re working on designing a partially submerged fixed bed reactor, like trickle tower or similar.

Roberta is a hybrid Rotating Biological Contactor (hRBC), with a mesh disk instead of the conventional plastic disk. As we saw in the previous slide, Pirelli can grow on her, but the growth is only limited to the air-water interface. Here she is on site, sporting a variety of bacteria and microorganisms, because we have not started to manipulate the microbial population to select for Pirelli yet. The good think to note here is that the on-site reactor setup supports growth.

Agnes is an aerobic granular sludge (AGS) sequencing batch airlift reactor. She is a bit more temperamental and did not perform well in the lab, but she is also a new technology globally and so we tolerate the learning curve. On site though, she performed better than anticipated and formed granules in 24 hours, when we inoculated her with activated sludge. With both Roberta and Agnes, we are not confident of product location yet, so we can not make definitive predictions on downstream processing (DSP) yet. This is a significant cost component of a process, but we do have a few options to explore, based on what the polymer does in the field.

Agnes working with real sewage. She performs better here because the low substrate concentration (<1g/L) prevents foaming, and the activated sludge is a better consistency than the pure cultures we had in the lab. The settling rate of the sludge is very fast, more than 60cm / minute (I am not an SVI competent person yet!), but the treatment efficiency is still expected to be low, as the active biomass is low. Next steps are to inoculate these with Pirelli, build more reactors to test different configurations, and do sampling, data analysis and microbial population analysis.

In closing, what I have learnt this year, is firstly, to stick to core business. Look after yourself, you don’t need to save the world. You need to decide what you want to do, and then stick to it.

Secondly, while pursuing your own interest, don’t let what you do limit access for the collective interest. Invest in a common language sothat you can talk across industries.

Lastly, and a continuing journey for me, is to consider everything as a conversation around responsibilities more than rights. Life is a balance between Values, Legislation & Incentives. It opens up questions around democracy vs patriarchy, balancing care and justice. It changes how we look at, and talk about, everything.

The greatest value in wastewater biorefineries lies not in the technology or adequate engineering design, but in the connections between people, adequate communication and the willingness to engage.

I don’t fit in here in many ways, but I do want to tell you that you are all amazing, this is a top outfit group, the best in the world, and I’m proud to be part of this group. Thank you.

04 Aug 2012 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0

Bernelle Verster was featured in the August 2012 edition of Forbes Africa - as part of their Women's month efforts.


This is a final edit of the article, corrected to the final print as far as possible.



- by Sumitra Nydoo


It's not often you find young women sorting through crap, 31-year-old Bernelle Verster is and she's making a career of it. Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa [damn, they edited out Benoni], Verster is studying for her PhD in bioprocess engineering at the University of Cape Town. She specializes in sifting through wastewater.

"I look for the nutrients in the sewage", says Verster.

And who would think that there are actually any nutrients in latrine water. Verster of course!

She's been thinking about this since she was 12. She first realized it was possible whilst doing her Masters in the United Kingdom in 2005. As she explains this very technical process, the water, so to speak, is looking less murky. When waste matter enters the sewer system it flows through the various purification processes. On its way, it passes through a few units where most of the gunk is held back - this becomes biosolids. Now only dissolved waste continues to flow through, and goes through a reactor, or 'house' as Verster calls it. Micro-organisms or 'tiny bugs' from various origins like your gut, the soil and food matter, attach themselves to the walls of this 'house'.

She tries to break it down for me in colourful ways.

"It's like a soup, and the bacteria, the fungi and small animals feed off the contents".

Verster then scrapes off the bacteria 'bugs', which formed a slimy white substance. This slime is processed and dried. Once harvested, it can then be used in various products from cleaning to soil improvements, hydrogels - which are used in diapers - and, someday, perhaps even bioplastics in the textile industry.

For now, Bernelle aims to put it back into the water to further purify the same water that produced it. This process is especially important to Verster because it's inexpensive and needs no transport. Her research is focused on producing green products cheaply. The biosolids, removed in the beginning of the process, can also be used to produce enough biogas to power the treatment plant, making the entire process even more cost-effective. Some of the gas has been used in trial projects in South Africa to power stoves and industrial ovens and is also widely used around the world.

"This is a natural source, I take the bugs and set them to work again - they're less abrasive than some of the harsh products currently being used in water purification. I want to use what we have already to make something else, something new and exciting," she adds.

Verster is enthusiastic about what she's doing and is using her skills to empower others. A few years back, she won the regional leg of an entrepreneurship competition run by the South African National Innovation Fund. Taking part in the competition gave her an insight into the business world. "I learnt the basics about starting a business, how to run it and how to market it."

She is now using the knowledge to raise awareness about her PhD, biology, science, engineering and the processing of raw sewage to produce products which can alleviate some of the issues facing South Africa. As the Green Drop Report, an evaluation of treatment works in South Africa, states: "Adequate wastewater treatment is the first barrier in a multi barrier system of ensuring safe drinking water quality."

Water is already being bioprocessed in South Africa - in fact, the country leads the world in biological nutrient removal. The treated water is being used by large businesses which use water for production and manufacturing and to water golf courses. But there's still a long way to go before the water can meet government standards.

"Everyone wants to go green, but going green is often an expensive exercise. Here we've found a way to go green cheaply. Why waste the waste when we can use it," says Verster.

Water bioprocessing has the ability to evolve into a multibillion rand industry, but needs significant investment, she adds.

Verster and her friends have started a learn-on-the-run entrepreneurship program, showcasing good ideas and building business skills through real-world interdisciplinary projects.

"We want people to start talking about this process, so we teach students how to market the science, and make business sense out of it. Students often have technical expertise but they don't know how to tell the public about it," she says.

"The reality is that water is a scarce resource - it is recycled in every sense, there's no new source of water from the time of the dinosaurs. It's the same water that comes from the oceans, goes into rivers, ends up in the soil and back in the taps. If we pollute it in one place, one day those bad things are everywhere, even inside you. It's everyone's job to keep our water safe."

True to her vision, Verster wants to encourage entrepreneurs to sell the idea, and generate revenue without harming the environment. She wants to develop entrepreneurs who build ecosystems not empires; who work with the big picture and not in spite of it; who see nature as their model, measure and mentor. She wants entrepreneurs who regard money as a tool in the larger process. Her belief is that the way we do business is about to change in a fundamental way.

[edited out: Businesses will shortly not just look at making profits from their processes, but also look towards the bigger picture, and contribute to improving social and environmental process through their core operation.]

Bernelle Verster in Forbes Africa, August 2012 issue.

08 Feb 2012 Written by Bernelle Verster Comments 0



This review discusses bioreactor considerations to leverage the value to be obtained from waste. Section 2 gives a general introduction to the wider project, which takes lessons from both environmental and bioprocess engineering. This project is concerned with proving the technology to produce valuable products from dilute waste streams, and less concerned about the performance and application of the produced material. Reactor design is the main area that can be optimized for bioproduction, to place greater emphasis on the optimal functioning of the system as a whole.The energy utilisation of reactors needs to be improved, and the reactor needs to be designed with downstream processing in mind.


Section 3 introduces the reader to the concept of wastewater biorefineries. The wastewater biorefinery is established to maximize biomass productivity by ensuring that, not only is the wastewater treated to the necessary standard (yielding the outgoing water product), but that components removed from this wastewater are converted to products of value (economically or socially or both). The concept of a wastewater biorefinery is built around the overarching ability to function in the face of significant infrastructural limitations and, through its operation, improve these limitations.


Wastewater biorefineries move away from the traditional wastewater treatment objectives.Section 4 discusses how the system objectives change, and are affected by the differences in approach between the different stakeholders involved in their design and operation. From a process point of view multiple aspects need to be considered, including

  • Efficient product recovery of both the bioproduct and water product;
  • Energy efficiency through utilising both biomass retention and product retention;
  • The ability to be retrofitted into existing plants;
  • The implications of maintaining product productivity in non-sterile, mixed, cultures.

The social implications that arise when a new discipline emerges needs to be considered. These develop from disciplines that differ in their approach to reactor design, the objectives that the reactor is designed for and the prevalent culture and values. Emerging disciplines often co-incide with changing generations, which influence the preferred technologies used and ease of adapting to more advanced forms of analysis. The different backgrounds in especially the younger generation often lead to tensions, where bioprocess engineers often have a stronger scientific background, which leads to a different professional discourse. As the field of wastewater biorefineries develops its own language and discourse, supportive technologies mature and the boundaries between the parent biotechnologies are reduced, development of new design parameters and the development of new design approaches will occur, leading to a new generation of professionals. Section 4.3 highlights some of these tensions in the research environment, where data obtained in the laboratory for bioprocessing purposes often cannot be applied directly to wastewater bioprocesses. Section 4 also highlights emergent phenomena that arises when existing systems are adapted for use that they were not originally intended for.


Section 5 illustrates the suitability of Bacillus as a production organism in a mixed culture, specifically in its capacity to produce polyglutamic acid (PGA). Section 5.1 gives a brief introduction to the widespread use of Bacillus in industry. PGA's role in serving an ecological function is highlighted, which supports its value towards contributing to Bacillus dominance and hence higher potential productivity. The rationale of this project is illustrated by highlighting the uses of PGA in industry, most notably that of bioflocculant and soil conditioner. Section 5.4 argues for the production of PGA in wastewater biorefineries by showcasing previous work that produced PGA from waste resources. The value of using Bacillus in wastewater biorefineries is used as an example to show how working with Nature can give overall benefit to both humans and the environment. In Section 5.5 the positive role that Bacillus plays in wastewater treatment is discussed, alluding to the possibility to improve the natural system while providing opportunity for economic gain. Section 5.6 shows how producing PGA, using Bacillus, from a dilute waste can provide benefits over using conventional bioprocessing.


The first half of this review considers which factors are crucial to develop a bioreactor in a wastewater biorefinery. Section 6 provide the required review of reactor systems available to meet the needs of biomass retention, processing of large volumes and integrated product recovery. While not considered in this project, solid substrate fermentation (SSF) reactors are included for its potential in using biosolids to produce valuable products. Based on the combination of the need for biomass retention and the need for product recovery, the two reactors that were selected for further discussion is the aerobic granular sludge (AGS) process, an example of a particle based biofilm reactor (Section 6.6) and a hybrid rotating biological contactor (RBC) based on the HYbrid Bacillus ACtivated Sludge (HYBACS) process (Section 6.7). Scale up will not be considered in this project, but where possible the relevent calculations and data will be included to develop scale-up effectively and build confidence in reactor types as viable alternatives to the stirred tank reactor (STR). Specifically, laboratory data will be generated with an awareness of that required to inform scale-up.


This review focuses on the reactor configurations to produce PGA-containing product to be used for bioflocculant or soil conditioning applications. Downstream processing (DSP) is often only considered after the reactor is designed and separately to it. This may lead to an unoptimised system. To design the reactor system with DSP in mind to facilitate their combined optimisation, a brief overview and proposed DSP options are given in Section 7.


Closing remarks are given in Section 8, and Section 10 lists the numerous acknowledgements, illustrating that with the more transdisciplinary approach required when optimising the system as a whole, more and more players become important.


The greatest value in wastewater biorefineries lies not in the technology or adequate engineering design, but in the connections between people, adequate communication and a willingness to engage.