MICROrganic Technologies in Troy, New York is revolutionizing wastewater treatment with VIVA™ TMC, the world’s first Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) platform for treating wastewater streams ranging from high-strength industrial waste to low-strength municipal waste. Carol Maxwell, the company’s CEO, recently spoke with New York State Manufacturing Now about how the technology works, why it’s better than aeration, and how VIVA™ TMC can be part of the solution to America’s aging wastewater infrastructure. Podcast host Steve Melito also invited listeners to attend FuzeHub’s Clean Energy & Sustainability event in Troy on April 20, 2022.
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Steve Milito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Milito. Today we’re talking to Carol Maxwell from MICROrganic Technologies of Troy, New York. Carol, welcome to the podcast.
Carol Maxwell: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Steve Milito: Excellent. Carol, tell us about MICROrganic Technologies. How did you get started?
Carol Maxwell: MICROrganic Technologies was started around 2010 and it was founded by Brent Salina. He’s a biochemist and he actually started the company when he was at RPI as an undergrad. He had read some papers about the technology. The technology itself, called microbial fuel cells, really had never gone to market, but there have been a lot of scientists over the last 30 or 40 years that were studying it from an academic standpoint. He just thought it was one of the coolest things he’d ever heard as a chemist. He started actually trying to make microbial fuel cells in his kitchen at home, which I don’t recommend any of our readers to ever try to do. It’s generally not a good idea. Then as he kind of got into it, he came up with a very novel idea about the action of how it works and he set up a patent, and it was accepted. After that he came to an angel group in the Albany area called Eastern New York Angels. I’m an early member of it, as well as several other of our shareholders, and we kind of liked what we saw. It was kind of very interesting. Brent was very young, and he didn’t really have any business experience. The group of us, we provided some funding and away we went.
Steve Milito: Oh, that’s great. The RPI connection, Rensselaer Polytech Institute, for the uninitiated, certainly explains some of the geography here. Now, Carol, when did you join the company, and what is your background?
Carol Maxwell: I joined the company a few years later. The money kind of ran out and there wasn’t really enough structure in the company because it was a very early company. A group of the people that had originally put in some money, we decided we have to try and save this, because the technology itself can really make a lot of difference with climate change and energy efficiency. The group of us, we all kind of joined the company. I came in as CEO, and then several other of the investors came in other roles on our board. That was very helpful, because those specific investors had deep knowledge and many decades of experience in things like mechanical engineering and chemistry and things like that. It wasn’t just about the money, it was about kind of assembling a team that we could really grow from with those initial investors.
Steve Milito: Great. You’ve got the team now. There’s the technology, today it’s called Viva, V- I- V- A. How does it work, and why is it better than aeration?
Carol Maxwell: A lot of people don’t really ever think about what happens to all the water that goes down their sink, or their toilet, or their garbage disposal, as well as the clothing that we use, the food that we consume. All of these things require a lot of water during the process of manufacturing. We didn’t really have a technology that was safe. I’m rather old. I remember as a kid in the 1970s seeing… Maybe it was the late sixties, Lake Erie caught on fire. That was because until then, really, all of the wastewater coming from all different kinds of industrial settings, they were just sent into bodies of water like lakes and rivers. Mother Nature can clean that up to a certain extent, but once it gets too heavy, it really starts to kill a body of water and is not compatible with a good ecosystem. The technology itself of aeration was identified and started to be used around 1914, but it didn’t really scale up until the 1970s with the Clean Water Act. At that point, everybody had to treat the wastewater. The way that it’s done is that actually microbes can break down the content in the water, but they have to breathe. The solution was to blow air into wastewater all the time, 24/ 7. They never turned those blowers off and it was very impactful at the time and it really saved a lot of important bodies of water. But the issue with that is that all that energy required for it is very expensive for a plant. Aeration can consume anywhere from 40 to 75 or 80% of a plant’s total energy use. It’s very, very expensive. From a greenhouse gas standpoint, it’s not sustainable anymore. What’s different about Viva is that we use microbes, too, but we don’t blow air into the water. As the microbes are treating waste, they are depositing electrons onto circuits. What that means is that because we’re not blowing air into the water, we reduce energy use for this process by 85 to 90%. Then in addition to that, because the microbes are depositing electrons on all the circuits, you’re also getting two new benefits that no other technology can really provide. One is that those electrons are DC power, which a plant can use for further energy efficiency. Maybe one of the most novel things is that those signals that are happening as they’re depositing electrons, that’s also giving you information about what’s going on in the system. That also is very novel because in any other kind of wastewater treatment system, there is no way to know what’s happening in your system except to take a chemical test and then you maybe get the results back about eight or nine days later. Those are kind of the most unique and most sustainable features of Viva and microbial fuel cells in general.
Steve Milito: That’s great stuff. You get clean water and energy efficiency. Last week, Carol, I was at an event called the New York State Brewers Conference and water treatment there was a hot topic. Are you supporting the craft brewing industry?
Carol Maxwell: Yes, we identified it as a really good match for us, because brewery waste is very high strength, so to use conventional systems, it’s very, very expensive to treat. We also… New York State is a huge brewing area, and in fact, brewing overall in the country has really started to expand a lot in terms of smaller plants as well and smaller purveyors of it. Right now, actually, we just finished a long pilot with what we think is going to be one of our first customers, which is a brewery in the capital region. We’re also now piloting with Anheuser- Busch. They reached out to us and we’ll be starting a pilot there in about three to four weeks. That’s a much bigger plant than the small brewery. It’s about a million gallons a day of water, but we’re really excited about that.
Steve Milito: Oh, that’s fantastic. I read about that Anheuser- Busch project on your website, and thanks for the update and a lot of exciting things going on. To kind of shift gears a little bit, there’s been a lot of talk at the national level, statewide as well, about infrastructure. What are the challenges facing the water and wastewater infrastructure in the US and do you see your technology as potentially part of the solution?
Carol Maxwell: The short answer of the second question is yes, we do see ourselves as a major contributor to that. The infrastructure that we have is quite old, and a lot of it was built in the 1970s and that was a long time ago. A lot of plants and a lot of municipalities, they really need to upgrade their equipment. Given that aeration systems are by far the biggest energy load on a plant, often what’s happening now is that plants are saying, ” Wow, we have to really look at newer technology that will really reduce our carbon footprint and our energy use overall.” Especially from municipalities, we have a lot of other aging infrastructure in the US beyond water, and so it’s very hard for municipalities to figure out how are we going to keep up with all these upgrades overall.
Steve Milito: For sure. Carol, one last question if I may. New York State is clearly committed to clean water, clean energy and sustainability. Has MICROrganic Technologies worked with any New York state assets?
Carol Maxwell: Yes, we are working with NYSERDA right now, and in fact, we were very fortunate to get a special grant to develop our first commercial prototype, and that’s the one that’s being deployed. We’ve done many pilots earlier, but they weren’t in a commercial format. We learned a lot through piloting to understand what do we need to manufacture that will work within these kinds of industrial and municipal settings. That is a really big focus for us. I would also just mention that recently we’ve also been involved with an organization of very large company called Xylem, and they are very interested. We’re going to be piloting with them also, and they are in the municipal market, as well. That does give us potentially a little bit further out, but another opportunity to enter that sector of the municipal landscape, which is where all that water that I talked about earlier, that’s where it often goes.
Steve Milito: For sure. Carol, thank you so much for being on New York State Manufacturing Now.
Carol Maxwell: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Steve Milito: I’m glad to hear that. Hey, we’ve been talking to Carol Maxwell of MICROrganic Technologies, a Troy New York company with an exciting technology and a strong commitment to sustainability. Now, speaking of sustainability and speaking of Troy, FuzeHub is organizing a clean energy and sustainability event for manufacturers in Troy on April 20th, 2022. This is an in- person interactive event that begins with an evening reception, and that will have plenty of networking opportunities. You’ll also get to meet with New York State funded resources that can help your company implement its clean energy and sustainability goals. If you’d like to attend, please go online today and register. The link is www.fuzehubcom/mfg-forum- clean- energy- sustainability. If you didn’t get that link, it’s a long one. Don’t worry. Just email info@ fuzehub.com and let us know you’d like to register, and we will take care of the rest. Again, on behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now, this is your host, Steve Milito signing off.