Olive mill wastewater transformed: From pollutant to bio-fertilizer, biofuel

September 27, 2017

Olive oil has long been a popular kitchen staple. Yet producing the oil creates a vast stream of wastewater that can foul waterways, reduce soil fertility and trigger extensive damage to nearby ecosystems. Now in a study appearing in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, scientists report on the development of an environmentally friendly process that could transform this pollutant into "green" biofuel, bio-fertilizer and safe water for use in agricultural irrigation.

During processing, olives are crushed and mixed with water in mills. The oil is separated out of this mixture, and the dirty water and solid residue are discarded. In Mediterranean countries, where 97 percent of the world's olive oil is produced, olive mills generate almost 8 billion gallons of this wastewater annually. Disposing of it has become problematic. Dumping it into rivers and streams can potentially contaminate drinking water and harm aquatic life. Pumping it onto farm land damages the soil and reduces crop yields. Some researchers have tried burning the wastewater with mixtures of solid waste from the mills or waste wood. But these approaches have either been too costly or have produced excessive air pollution. Mejdi Jeguirim and colleagues took a different approach. They wanted to see if they could convert olive mill wastewater (OMW) from a pollutant into sustainable products for practical use.

The researchers first embedded OMW into cypress sawdust - another common Mediterranean waste product. Then they rapidly dried this mixture and collected the evaporated water, which they say could be safely used to irrigate crops. Next, the researchers subjected the OMW-sawdust mixture to pyrolysis, a process in which organic material is exposed to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. Without oxygen, the material doesn't combust, but it does thermally decompose into combustible gases and charcoal. The researchers collected and condensed the gas into bio-oil, which could eventually be used as a heat source for OMW-sawdust drying and the pyrolysis process. Finally, they collected the charcoal pellets, which were loaded with potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients extracted from the breakdown of OMW-sawdust mixture during pyrolysis. Used as biofertilizers, the researchers found that after five weeks these pellets significantly improved plant growth, including larger leaves, compared to vegetation grown without them.
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The authors acknowledge funding from the PHC Utique program of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Higher Education and Research; the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the GEDURE project; and the MICA Carnot Institute.

The abstract that accompanies this study is available here.

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, is a not-for-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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