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Wastewater as a Clean Energy Source

A group led by Stanford PhD student Yaniv Scherson and advised by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Craig Criddle won a U.S. Department of Energy regional competition with a new process that removes nitrogen from wastewater while generating energy.

On May 1, a panel of judges awarded the $100,000 National University Clean Energy Business Challenge prize to the Stanford team for its project to convert nitrogen waste into nitrous oxide that is then used for clean power generation. The team beat out about 60 teams from other Western universities and will compete against winners from five other regions at the national competition at the Department of Energy in Washington in June.

"This really is great news, a testament to the talent and ambition of our students," said Criddle, an expert in environmental biotechnology. "One of the reasons this project won is that Yaniv has already shown through his PhD research that the idea works," said team co-advisor Brian Cantwell, the Edward C. Wells Professor in Stanford's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Scherson, Criddle and Cantwell, began developing the low-cost technology in 2009 with a grant from the Stanford Woods Institute's Environmental Venture Projects initiative. The process recovers energy from waste nitrogen by converting it into nitrous oxide. The nitrous oxide can be used to burn biogas, which results from the recovery of methane from organic waste, or to power a small rocket thruster that converts the nitrous into clean, hot air.

The technology is an important part of a larger effort at Stanford to develop economical and energy-efficient ways of recovering clean water and other valuable products from wastewater. Current wastewater treatment in the US is energy-intensive and has not focused on resource recovery.

The Department of Energy competition, in its first year, will award a total of $2 million in prize money.

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