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Sustainable Environment Research Centre

The Sustainable Environment Research Centre (SERC), based at the University of South Wales, is a ground-breaking research centre working to address major energy and environmental challenges. SERC has been involved in national and international projects over 30 years, with research themes such as wastewater treatment, anaerobic digestion, hydrogen energy systems, renewable energy and green chemical production.

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Biorefining sewage biosolids for energy and green chemicals

A bench-scale bioreactor has been constructed which will contain primary sewage biosolids undergoing anaerobic digestion. The aim of the project is to successfully extract volatile fatty acids (VFAs) from the reactor using electrodialysis. Electrodialysis is an efficient method of extracting VFAs from digesters and SERC has been a leading group in using electrodialysis with various other feedstocks e.g. grass waste and food waste.

Bioreactor design
Clarity of VFA concentrate obtained compared with feed and reactor liquid


VFAs are highly valuable, building block chemicals used extensively in many different industries, including food and drink, cosmetics, textiles and chemical production. They have a continually growing market demand, for example the market value for acetic acid is expected to reach over $16 billion by 2026. At present, VFAs are primarily produced using non-renewable petrochemicals, so if they can be produced via AD, then not only would greenhouse gas emissions be reduced, but also our reliance on fossil fuels.


Schematic diagram of conventional electrodialysis using acetic acid

Electrodialysis is a membrane technology that works by separating negative and positive ions. Once a power supply is applied, the cations move toward the cathode and the anions move toward the anode. Alternating exchange membranes prevent the further migration of ions, which results in concentrated streams of VFAs.

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