Toxic compounds made land near Libby, Montana uninhabitable. A first-generation college student restored the land with the help of some microscopic organisms. Now Ron is leveraging algae, to protect the environment. Algae growing in wastewater convert pollutants into a resource, that can sustain industries. Listen to this episode to hear how this work is done, and how Ron Sims uses these projects to educate future biological engineers.
[00:00:00] Ron Sims: So you have wood preservatives and the wood preservatives preserve the wood by being toxic to microorganisms. But those chemicals are also toxic to people and they get into the groundwater and then people drink that and then they can get cancer from these cancer causing compounds. And this was a real full-scale town. Libby Montana, where the drinking water supply had been shut off.
[00:00:28] Wyatt Archer: Who helps out when a place has been contaminated by toxic compounds or who do you call when you need to extract nutrients from wastewater and turn those nutrients into products with value? Well, in both situations, you call a biological engineer like Ron Sims.
[00:00:45] Ron Sims: Hello, I am Ron Sims. A professor in the department of biological engineering, here at USU.
[00:00:52] Wyatt Archer: To improve the world we live in discoveries made in laboratories need to be sized up and applied on larger scales. That's what Ron Sims does in this episode, you'll hear how a scaled-up discovery made in a USU lab, benefited the people of Libby, Montana.
[00:01:08] You'll hear how USU became the second university in the nation with the biological engineering. You'll also hear how Ron's currently working on a project that will harvest nutrients from wastewater. This project will help protect the environment and grow industry all while training a future workforce, a biological engineer.
[00:01:29] My name is Wyatt Archer, and you could be dumping toxic chemicals into the water table, but you are listening to this instead, a podcast from the office of research at Utah state university, between 1946 and 1969, a lumber mill and plywood producer operated in Libby Montana. Mil operations included treating wood with creosote, Penta, Klara, phenol, and other chemicals, spills and disposal practices at the site contaminated the soil groundwater surface water in 1979.
[00:02:05] The EPA discovered Pentachlorophenol contamination in well water at a nearby house. Ron was part of USDA's team that engineered solutions to some of the challenges and Libby Montana. Currently he's working with central valley water reclamation facility in south Salt Lake City has worked there. It will help grow industries as well as prevent Utah lands from being contaminated by the waste in the 600 million gallons of water that flow through that facility on a daily basis.
[00:02:32] But before we go to Montana or South Salt Lake, we need to take a trip to Pittsburgh because that's where the story of Ron Sims starts.
[00:02:42] Ron Sims: Uh, my parents didn't graduate from high school. Uh, but somehow my mother got the idea that I should go to college. I had no idea what college was when I grew up in the inner city in Pittsburgh.
[00:02:53] And so she would say from what she heard, you should go to college. And so I go, I don't know what college is. And so. Idea of when I did go to college and then discovered that environment, it was because of the support of the parents who said, yeah, go to college. We didn't have that opportunity. And then, um, it opened, that's what opened up the whole new world.
[00:03:16] Wyatt Archer: How did your teachers help you? I didn't navigate college as easily as maybe I should have, you know, I just didn't know the systems and the bureaucracy and stuff. Like what kind of support did you have?
[00:03:27] Ron Sims: Yeah. So, um, so a lot of that, as you say, was feeling my way through the system. Cause we didn't know that either you kind of went to school and at college, let's say when you got into college, uh, and you kind of felt right there, wasn't there wasn't a lot of support.
[00:03:43] I mean, we're much more sophisticated today to help students coming in. So a lot of this was finding out how. Which, which being raised more in the inner city and ghetto, you are taught to learn how to manipulate your way through an environment.
[00:04:01] Wyatt Archer: Sorry, I'm just, I was raised rural, which you have a lot of the same problems. They are just different limited resource limited access you learned. Just trust everybody, which is like, just can be helpful, but also like not at all,
[00:04:19] Ron Sims: I think you're right. And I think, I think that's true. And growing up in the city, you learn to be a scance. A lot of it is you have to be very wary of, so you're, you're kind of on guard all the time of what's going on here and you're kind of looking probing and then you're quick to change or response or adapt kind of thing.So it teaches you some skills. Where you have to be more independent.
[00:04:41] Wyatt Archer: Ron graduated from the university of Dayton with the bachelor's degree in biology, but he was doing more than school.
[00:04:48] Ron Sims: So I was involved in the first earth day. I was graduating from college in 1970 first earth day, trying to save the planet right.
[00:04:55] And thought, wow, this is really cool. Lots of enthusiasm, lots of energy. The environmental protection agency was born in 1970. The year I graduated from college. So this kind of national. Um, context was inspirational. Plus we were trying to get to the moon. So technology engineering that was just 1969 EPA, 1970.
[00:05:16] So these all inspired me. Let's say, as a student to keep going public health, save the world because the Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught on fire in 1969. Uh, so there were some lots of issues in the environment. So that inspired me to go to Chubb.
[00:05:32] Wyatt Archer: So he went on to get a master's degree in environmental biology and chemistry from the university of north Carolina's school of public health at chapel hill.
[00:05:41] After that program, he got a job at Beyer, the aspirin company
[00:05:45] Ron Sims: working there with my chemistry biology background as a laboratory supervisor. And I was in charge of engineering reactors to try to get rid of these toxic compounds. That can be produced in ways from pharmaceuticals, textiles, things like that.
[00:06:00] So I got really interested in engineering and so I had taken one course in engineering and public health and thought, I don't know enough, so I need to go back and learn engineering. So I quit went back and got a master's a second master's but this was in engineering, environmental,
[00:06:15] Wyatt Archer: Ron resigned from his job at Bayer and went to Washington state university to get a master's degree in environmental engineering.
[00:06:23] After getting his second master's degree, Ron moved back to North Carolina to work at research triangle Institute.
[00:06:30] Ron Sims: At that time, it was the energy crisis or oil and gas crisis in the United States. And so we were looking for ways to take coal, very dirty, polluted coal and the Southeast clean it up to make gas.
[00:06:43] So it was coal gasification. And I got fascinated with both the engineering and the biology because you clean up the gas in that energy, but you produce toxic chemicals in the process. So the idea of, Hey, how do we engineer our systems so that they don't. Producing toxics that get into the environment that can make the can poison people.
[00:07:03] And at that time we had Superfund where we had love canal in New York and people getting cancer from these chemicals and drinking.
[00:07:13] Wyatt Archer: While Ron was in South Carolina, working with toxic compounds and the oil gasification process headlines from Niagara falls in New York were making national news. The love canal tragedy is a long story, but essentially the hooker chemical company, landfill to toxic chemicals.
[00:07:30] And in the early fifties, they filled in the property and sold it to the city of Niagara falls. In the late fifties, about 100 homes were built on that site in 1978 record rainfall brought enough toxic chemicals to the. That the problem could no longer be ignored and the residents were evacuated, but for many, it was too late to escape.
[00:07:48] The negative health effects like birth defects and cancer. Love canal was the first place designated as a Superfund site by the environmental protection agency. EPA Superfund sites are polluted locations in the United States requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contamination.
[00:08:06] Events like this motivated Ron to go back to school and get a PhD at North Carolina state university in RA.
[00:08:14] Ron Sims: So I decided, okay, I'm going back and get a PhD to put together these different disciplines at North Carolina state university. So I ended up working under a chemical engineer. So as you can see, I'm very interested, no boundaries, right?
[00:08:28] Yeah. If there's an opportunity to learn, I just jump in. Yeah. So I did that for several, for three years and, um, looked for a job to put all this together, look for an opportunity and, you know, USU is advertising for a faculty member in environmental engineering. So I applied and this school, Utah state had one of the best environmental engineering programs in the country.
[00:08:52] And my advisors knew that from North Carolina and they said, oh, apply to USU their environmental engineering program is one of the tops. Jill Middlebrooks was the Dean whenever I applied at that time. And he was internationally and nationally known. So I applied out here and we got an interview. We meaning my wife and I, because she also went with me.
[00:09:11] She has two master's degrees. We interviewed out here and we really fell in love with the environment, the people, the faculty, the students at USU. So he said, if they offer us a job, we're going to leave it and leave North Carolina and go to Utah state. And so that was in 1982. And that's when we jumped on board here.
[00:09:31] Wyatt Archer: Ron moves to Logan, Utah, where he starts working in Utah state university's water research laboratory there. He helped rural communities improve their water. Paul. The systems he helped implement improved water quality through the use of sand and algae filters later, Ron got involved working to clean up the chemicals leftover from that lumber mill in Libby Montana.
[00:09:55] Ron Sims: And then right up in Libby Montana, there was a factory up there, uh, that made wood preservatives that had contaminated. It wasn't their fault. They, we didn't have the technology. The groundwater got contaminated shut down the whole supply to the town. So we worked with the environmental protection agency to sample the site and try to come up with a solution for this.
[00:10:16] And this was a real full-scale town, Libby, Montana, where the groundwater, where the drinking water supply had been shut off. So we worked
[00:10:25] Wyatt Archer: I’m gonna’ stop you, What chemicals were in the water and why were they bad? What role did they play?
[00:10:34] Ron Sims: Carcinogens. So you have wood preservatives on the wood preservatives preserve the wood by being toxic to microorganisms, but those chemicals are also toxic to people.
[00:10:45] And so what happens is those chemicals in the wood would preserve and creosote. How about that? Um, those are some of the same chemicals that people get when they smell. Tobacco, uh, coming from North Carolina where I went to school, as, you know, a lot tobacco was very big there. So I learned a lot about the carcinogens in tobacco.
[00:11:04] And the idea then is those same chemicals are in wood preservative waste and they get into the groundwater and then people drink. And then they can get cancer from these cancer causing compounds that are used to preserve wood because they prevent, uh, insects and microbes from degrading the wood. Yeah, there wasn't much known about the treatment of toxic waste in soil and groundwater in the eighties.
[00:11:29] So we had a unique opportunity at Utah state. We also got a grant from the environmental protection agency to write the permit guidance manual for the United States for. Dealing with these toxic waste and soils, it is called land treatment of hazardous waste.
[00:11:47] Wyatt Archer: But did you help the water supply?
[00:11:49] Ron Sims: Yeah. So what's interesting is we brought soil samples back that were contaminated and started looking for what might be in the soil. This is very much the way penicillin was discovered. We brought the soil back. I. Uh, sophomore undergraduate students said, let me look at the organisms in the soil to see if there's some there that degrade these compounds.
[00:12:11] So I said, yes, go ahead. I, my approach is, if you've got an idea, I'll support you. Okay. Uh, so he then went off and did some studies where he put the soil on a Petri plates and started looking at the organisms and started to see there were organisms there that did a clearing, meaning they were degrading these, uh, these carcinogenic chemicals.
[00:12:33] And that's where this started. So what we found out is if you go to the site and you'd take the fringe areas that are not highly contaminated, where the, where the. The creosote has killed the organisms, but you go to the fringe, it's diluted a little bit. So there are organisms that will adapt to smaller concentrations.
[00:12:52] Then you take that soil and put it back into the contaminated. So you're mixing relatively contaminated with highly contaminated soil. And by doing that, you're a knocker collating, the highly contaminated soil with these organisms, and then they degrade the compounds and they clean up the site. Yeah.
[00:13:07] Wyatt Archer: So how long did it take. For like the water to get, be drinkable again.
[00:13:12] Ron Sims: So a couple of years, in fact, what happened is we cleaned up the soil, but the groundwater was so far down, it was 60, it was 160 feet down the groundwater. Uh, and it had been so contaminated for years, that EPA wrote off the possibility of actually drinking that water.
[00:13:29] But the soil that we use that we decontaminated the soil could be used again for building and parking lots and trees and parks. So. We're able to remediate the soil, even though we couldn't remediate to groundwater because it was too far down and it would cost too much money. So we got a hybrid solution there.
[00:13:48] Wyatt Archer: So then they probably just had. Figure out another water supply?
[00:13:52] Ron Sims: Exactly. But the part of the project was to say, you can't, it's not technically feasible to clean up the ground water at that depth. It let's say economically achievable. So we'll clean up the soil for you.
[00:14:07] Wyatt Archer: So that's the story of how Ron Sims a kid from inner city. I was encouraged to get an education by parents that hadn't graduated high school. Ron successfully got a bachelor's degree. Ron then went on to get a master's in public health. A few years later, he got a second master's degree in engineering.
[00:14:25] And a few years after that he got a PhD in biological engineering. Ron then ended up at USU where he could bring his education together and work on projects like soil restoration and Libby Monday. Listen, it's a good story. Everybody loves it when an underdog becomes a hero, but there's another story here.
[00:14:44] That's easy to overlook. It took Bron four degrees and 18 years to become a biological engineer. Not exactly an efficient way to build a workforce of biological engineers. Luckily Ron loves learning and Ron loves problem solving. So building a more efficient process to train future biological engineers is also something Ron has been working.
[00:15:09] But before we get to that, we need to know what biological engineering even is. So what are some of the borders that would confine biological engineering and separate it from other forms of engineering?
[00:15:22] Ron Sims: So we're going to do like doctors without borders and engineers without borders. Yeah.
[00:15:27] Wyatt Archer: Except for, I want to know where the borders are.
[00:15:28] There are borders,
[00:15:29] Ron Sims: So there, so I really can't think of a. Yeah for biological engineering. And that's an excellent question because the whole I'm the founding department and biological engineering. So what I see for biological is a unique opportunity to integrate with all the sciences. And with engineering tools, but for this, for the application to biological systems, biological systems, they don't have many borders, right?
[00:16:00] You can go from plants to animals, to large, to small macro micro. Uh, the idea in biological engineering was actually to bust open those borders and make this as more porose. Uh, discipline, as so, as you said, many disciplines, I call stovepipe. This is our, we like our boundaries. Um, in engineering, uh, in biological engineering, the idea is you use biological principles to innovate into many other disciplines, which would be medical, pharmaceutical, environmental.
[00:16:37] Uh, the idea is that by learning the fundamentals that we're being. Well, the science of biology, but then we're, we go to engineering applications of that biology to scale up, to make things work. And so I, uh, say that. The boundaries are extremely poor, so much so that I could say, well, you know, even if you're building a rocket ship to go to Mars, there's biological engineering.
[00:17:03] There's very now, as you mentioned for geomorphology, uh, there might be some interest. There might be some boundaries. However, I've worked with, uh, geological type people to look at biological reactions in the service. That effect that affect the geology and vice versa. The physics often affects the biology, the physics and chemistry affects the biology.
[00:17:26] So the, I see more like in terms of modern physics, there's more interaction than there are borders. So I call it engineering without borders.
[00:17:39] Wyatt Archer: Um, what makes USU such a great place for biological engineering?
[00:17:44] Ron Sims: Yeah. Okay. Really good. So first of all, I found USU to be same kind of thing, willing to, you have an idea. Go for it. And let's see if you can make it right. In other words, open-ended problem solving. We call it as you have an idea. And what happened is we had a Dean, uh, that came here, Scott Hinton, who was electrical. And, uh, he being in the Silicon industry, uh, had an insight that biological, these components and parts, biological genes and parts of gene.
[00:18:15] We're like electrical. They had, uh, they had similarities to our electrical components and resistors and transistors. So he said, Hey, biological engineering could be a wave of the future. MIT had the, as I mentioned, the first department, and so he said to me, because of my PhD was in biological. Be interested in starting a department in biological engineering.
[00:18:37] He had the support of the president at that time, uh, Kermit hall. He had the support of the provost, um, Ray coward. And, um, he said, okay, let's go ahead. And, uh, if you're interested do that because. I was the director of the water lab. Right. And he said, would you like to take on a new opportunity? And as I've told you before, if I have these different degrees and all over the place, am I the one to say, no, I want to stay where I am now.
[00:19:04] So I go, Hey, if there's an opportunity to jump into and people, people would say, you know, you have a nice job at the water lab and, you know, you're kind of secure. And I went, ah, I like a challenge. I take challenges. I'm a risk taker. Let's put it that way. Okay. We have a chance to build a new department, and I think this is the culmination of my career is to be able to build it where students don't have to get a bachelor's in biology, a master's in public health and other masters in engineering, a pH where this was my opportunity to put on more, and it came out of a sweat and tears and going through four degrees myself. Yeah. So that's how we had a Dean who was innovative and I jumped on the bandwagon and said, let's go.
[00:19:47] Wyatt Archer: Yeah. If I were to follow you on an interesting day of research, what would I see you doing?
[00:19:55] Ron Sims: Very good. So now, so what, um, what I'm doing now is bioenergy, right? And so the idea is to take waste and look at it as a resource waste, they have fertilizer in the wastewater in municipal and industrial wastewater. They have nitrogen and phosphorous, and my, uh, kind of thrust now is waste to value, but there are good chemicals in there, but they're out of place.
[00:20:18] So I say waste is a resource out of place. So now what I do is I go down to central valley, the largest wastewater reclamation facility in the state of Utah,
[00:20:28] Wyatt Archer: located in South Salt Lake. The central valley wastewater reclamation facility treats 60 million gallons of wastewater on a daily basis. That's enough water to fill 90 Olympic sized swimming pools.
[00:20:42] The water treatment process is complicated. So today I'm going to oversimplify it for you. First, the big pieces of trash and plastic that have found their way into the wastewater get filtered out. After that different stages of bacteria are used to break down the organic compounds in the waste. Eventually 90% of that water has been successfully treated and it gets discharged into mill Creek.
[00:21:05] The last 10% is full of bacteria that were used in the treatment process. Those bacteria produce methane, which gets burned for energy. And then those bacteria gets squished to separate the liquids from the solids. Imagine squishing a bunch of apples to make juice that juice can be given to growing. And the leftover apple peels and squished out apple solids can be used as compost.
[00:21:31] Turning squished out bacteria solids into compost is easy. What's hard is finding somebody to drink that bacteria to. And that's where Ron comes in– Every day the facility produces an Olympic sized swimming pools worth of bacteria juice. Essentially, it's just water with a lot of phosphorus and nitrogen in it.
[00:21:50] We don't know what to do with it. And it has to go somewhere. Ron is engineering processes to grow algae in that bacteria juice. Those algae will absorb the nitrogen and phosphorus as they grow. And then that algae can be converted into bio matter, which can be used to make bioproducts that have value. I think this whole process is really cool, but it's a really long-term project and it kind of sounds expensive.
[00:22:15] And so I had to ask Ron this question– I can see like somebody just being like, well, this seems like a waste of money. Why don't we just pipe it out to some flat spot where like the water can evaporate off and then. Problem solved.
[00:22:28] Ron Sims: Yeah. So the water would evaporate off and then you would have a nitrogen or phosphorous that every time it rains would leach into the soil, wherever you put it, you would be basically phosphorus is a limiting element.
[00:22:42] We cannot replace phosphorus in the environment. Uh, there is no substitute and phosphorus is limited supply in the world. So if we don't recycle phosphorus, we will run out of it. Uh, and there is no way we can substitute Silicon or argon or anything else for phosphorus. The old philosophy was make it, use it through.
[00:23:05] And when you throw it away, we had enough land and water that dilutions the solution to pollution, but now we're running out of space and also it doesn't make good sense to say, we're just going to throw phosphorus someplace and never recover it again. What we're going to do is recycle it and make products that are not damaging the environment, but we'll actually grow the economy.
[00:23:27] We need to be smarter than we have been before based on new tools, new methods, we need to research, recycle, reduce, reuse, and grow industry. But at the same time, take care of the environment and people's to develop this technology.
[00:23:40] Wyatt Archer:. Ron has a test reactor it's 1100 gallons, which is the amount of water it would take to fill one of those temporary backyard swimming pools.
[00:23:52] You know, the kind that are four feet deep and have like tarps for walls, think that size. But the basic science that starts this process begins in the lab. So instead of being at a water reclamation facility, working with the swimming pools worth of water, we're going to be in a. Working with Tupperware sized container of water, the kind of Tupperware that you would put a jello or green salad and bring to a barbecue.
[00:24:16] That's the scale we're talking about. So tell me how this little reactor in the lab
[00:24:21] Ron Sims: works. Very good. So we have a, um, I want the Tupperware one. Yes. Okay. Very good. So think of a Tupperware size where you have a rolling. And you have the rolling pin with wouldn't you wrap cotton around it, and then you put some algae on that cotton.
[00:24:37] So you have now like a crop, your algae is your agricultural crop and the cotton is your soil. And then you rotate this, um, uh, the cylinder into. To pick up nutrients and then you rotated back into the sun to pick up sunlight to grow, and then you rotate it back into the water and back into sunlight. So you're actually using the sun and the CO2 in the atmosphere.
[00:25:03] You're capturing it and you're using it to grow your crop, which has algae that's in a very small scale reactor so that you might have a large surface area. Of your cylinder to a small amount of volume may be a court of water. And so we're testing to see if we could, if that works, we can see
[00:25:23] Wyatt Archer: The Tupperware sized bioreactor was successful. So this project needed to be scaled up so that it could go from Tupperware to bathtub, to backyard pool, to someday and Olympic sized swimming pools worth of wastewater. Why is it? What's the value of having differently sized projects.
[00:25:42] Ron Sims: Yeah. Very good. So, so engineering where engineering then interfaces with science is that science will discover a reaction.
[00:25:49] Let's say a reaction in a laboratory. And then getting that reaction to scale up to swimming pool size is very difficult and challenging, which is why we don't have a lot of technologies developed yet. It's called scale up. Scale up is, very difficult. And you can imagine if you will. A cup of tea and you put sugar in it and you start with a spoon.
[00:26:08] No problem. Uh, you get the sugars separate, you know, all distributed through the, but if you put this in a swimming pool and you try to move this sugar round, you need big machines to stir that water and move stuff around. So it's called mass transfer. So the size of the reactor would scale by square, but the.
[00:26:28] Scales by cube. And so when you have a small reactor, your surface area to volume is very different than a large reactor. And so those present what are called scale-up problems, and that's the main reason why most technologies don't are not implemented at large scale.
[00:26:45] Wyatt Archer: I want to paint a clear picture of how difficult scaling up projects is.
[00:26:50] So like Ron said, it's really easy to stir a teaspoon of. Into an eight ounce cup of tea, but scale that cup of tea up to our Olympic sized swimming pool and things get really tricky. Do you know those big bags of sugar, the 20 pound ones, you're going to need 495 of those bags to get that swimming pool to taste as sweet as one cup of tea with a level teaspoon of sugar in it.
[00:27:16] I think I would have to rent a truck. And then I out every Costco on the Wasatch front to get that much sugar, and then I would need help dumping those 495 bags of sugar into the pool. And I don't even know how I would scale up the function of the spoon so that I could stir all that sugar around and dissolve it.
[00:27:35] So hopefully the point is clear that scaling step up is tricky, which is why a new facility was built at USU. We need an intermediate step, something in between a cup of tea and a swimming.
[00:27:47] Ron Sims: A brand new building, just built for our group that is called the algae processing and products facility. It is located across from the water lab where I used to be the director and it is a 3000 square foot scale up facility where we have a greenhouse and scale up, meaning we scale up from the laboratory.
[00:28:10] That laboratory size reactors that we have in building six 20. So you'll see me go to the laboratory for a small scale. Uh, one half gallon size reactors to the greenhouse where we have 50 to 100 gallons to central valley where we have. 11 1200 gallons. So I run back and forth those three and we have 20 students working with Dr.
[00:28:33] Charles Miller and myself who work across all three of these sites.
[00:28:39] Wyatt Archer: Yeah. Yeah. So when this goes from the Tupperware container to the bathtub, what problems showed up?
[00:28:46] Ron Sims: Yeah. So then we have to say, okay, this is a bigger system now, so we need more power while we minimize it. We don't want to spend a lot of energy because you don't want to put more energy, tons, more energy in than you're getting out of this system.
[00:29:02] So scaling it up. Now we have to treat 50, a hundred gallons of this. So we need bigger motors. We need harvesting approaches. We need to monitor. This algae, we're going to produce a lot more of it. So how are we going to handle larger amounts of the algae for processing? How about that? And so you can't just take a spoonful of it and run it through this little reaction to make a little bit of biodiesel.
[00:29:25] Now you've got to scale up the algae to produce more biodiesel or more biofuels. So you need larger reactors to handle larger masks. And then when you go to the swimming pool, you're going to have 5,000 square feet. Now, how you're going to get the algae off of that. You're not going to use a spoon. You're going to have to have some very, um, robust way to collect that.
[00:29:46] And then how are you going to process all that biomass? Because in a small level, use a little bit of chemical, a little bit of acid or base, not a big deal when you're needing hundreds of gallons of acid or base. Or other solvents to handle the large amount of algae you, how are you going to store them safely, use them.
[00:30:06] Plus what about those chemicals? The impact on the environment? So you have to look at, as you scale up, you have all these other, uh, side effects. That you have to take into account. And so by scaling up, we're learning we're, these are lessons learned about how to handle large scale reactors so that you just don't create more pollution, energy.
[00:30:28] Wyatt Archer: Like, do you guys kind of have more algae than, you know, what to do with, or is there like plenty of demand for it?
[00:30:34] Ron Sims: So there's plenty of demand, but we don't have enough. And the pilot plant for instance, is on a smaller scale. So we'll be producing small amounts. The idea that big challenge there is to produce enough of this algae. Um, and that's our challenge is if we, if we scaled this up to the full flow, which would be 600,000 gallons a day of the water, they want us to treat, then we produce enough algae and there are markets out there. We can make bio oil, we can extract the algae and make bio. Out of that algae, we can take the algae and break it up and feed it to microbes bacteria that make bio-plastics.
[00:31:13] Some of that algae actually has color called phyco cyan and cyan and blue color and that cyan and can be transformed chemically into an antioxidant that you can feed the animals. So Dr. John Takamoto, uh, is working on, uh, he has a project and a company called Aggie feed, where you actually feed this chemical to organism, to animals for gut health.
[00:31:37] And you can actually put it on plants because it's an antioxidant. It helps the stress against plants, plants get stressed. If they get dried out or too much sun or not enough water, just like us. So as you just said, the possibility in the future is we can actually have this for some kind of food.
[00:31:54] Wyatt Archer: Because promoting industry is an important part of Ron's approach. He has involved industries and the scaling up of these technologies, so that someday and Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water can be treated daily. A company called west tech has developed a process where an algae roller is listed out of the growth tank so that a windshield wiper style blade can scrape the algae off the.
[00:32:18] And then it falls onto a collection tray. Ron is also working with a company called PNL to develop the process that converts to algae into biodiesel before the harvested algae has time to degrade when a full-scale system is built. Ron, isn't sure if that system will be one large reactor or a series of smaller ones, but one thing is for sure, developing this technology takes time.
[00:32:41] So I asked Ron how he deals with that. So a lot of these projects seem pretty long term. Um, when you started with this algae 10 years ago, 10 years. What is that like to work on a
[00:32:56] Ron Sims: project? Yes. So what happens then is, uh, it's the same, it's a relay race. It's a relay. So students do their project, masters undergraduates work, and then they leave, right.
[00:33:04] They graduate even PhDs 10 years, PhD is four years or five years. So the idea is I tell students when you produce a body of work, you're going to pass that on to the next students. So you have. To be able to do a good enough job to communicate in your thesis or your report or your capstone design, because students are going to pick up after you and continue your work one that shows them that they're not doing something.
[00:33:31] And then it's thrown in the corner and thanks. But we're done. No they're doing something that has value forward and building. The platform for the next students to advance on the next students and the next students. So I love long-term because the students get to be in a relay race where what they produce is value in itself, but then it's used by other students to take the next step.
[00:33:54] And that's why it takes 10 years to develop technologies where it's patience and persistence. It's that whole, you know, Edison. Uh, kind of thing where patients persistence, don't give up, keep going, you fail, you try something different. It's easy to give up and say, we're going to abandon it. And there, there is a place wisdom we're telling you this isn't going to work, but most of the time it's persistence and patience to find the needle in the haystack.
[00:34:21] It's there, but you gotta pay attention, be awake. And then when you see it, now we got that. Let's build on.
[00:34:27] Wyatt Archer: In projects that take between 10 and 20 years things aren't going to go. Right. A lot of the time, the last part of this episode is about how Brian deals with failure and how he trains his students to think about and deal with failure as well.
[00:34:44] Were there any failures or ones that like you guys just,
[00:34:47] Ron Sims: oh yeah. Yeah. In fact, my you're not kidding. Uh, in fact to do this is to fail, uh, my. Saying is fail forward is when you go into something, you know, you're going to fail. What you do is you plan as best you can. You make your hypothesis, which is science-based.
[00:35:04] My science is talking here. Then you look at testing it from an engineering point of view. So you come up with a hypothesis, then you test it. What you have to do is be ready to you have a map and then you have to be ready. To take a detour and then go back in and the deal we call this, an engineering and iterative solution is you find more information.
[00:35:25] You come up with a new hypothesis, then you engineer a system to test that usually scale up. Then whenever you fail at that, you fail forward by learning from. What you failed at? Don't do that. You've learned what not to do. Then you come up with a new idea. You put a team together. I'm a big teaming person.
[00:35:44] I work with my students in a team environment that I learned from industry. So in working together, you have a purpose. Uh, so you're not competing student to student, but the students are working together on a common goal. Then you expect those students. You say, you're going to. But that's okay. I expect you to do that.
[00:36:06] If you
[00:36:06] Wyatt Archer: were talking to students and you're like, you're going to fail. Like, and you wanted to tell them a story about you failing what
[00:36:14] Ron Sims: story? Yeah. So whenever I was doing my PhD work or even in industry, so I worked with, um, uh, ozone trying to break down toxic compounds when I was at Bayer, they said, okay, Sims you're in charge.
[00:36:26] I was in charge of the environmental, uh, Laboratory there. And, um, and it failed. I couldn't get the chemicals broken apart with ozone these toxic chemicals. So we ran that for a month and I had to report back, uh, it failed, this isn't going to work. So then they said, what else do you want to do? And I said, well, let's try activated carbon.
[00:36:45] Let's try a scorpion. So we modified and the source option worked, it worked for certain toxic chemicals. So I was always really. In my back pocket with, well, okay. Yeah, this failed, but now I have another idea. And usually what happens is when you fail, if you have an idea to bring forward, rather than I've failed.
[00:37:03] And so you're asking them to tell you what to do, that's not good, but if you say I failed, but I have another idea to do something, and then you pursue that and you fail and say, but I have another idea as long as you show what you did and how you failed, and then what you're going to do with it. Usually you get the supportive industry.
[00:37:19] Usually they'd say so here at. You don't want students to feel like I can't turn in this failed experiment because my advisor won't like it. So I say, no, be truthful, be honest, turn it in and tell us what you did now. What did you learn and what are you going to do different now, go out and do that and then report back on that.
[00:37:37] So it gives students confidence that they can feel. But they're not failing personally. They're learning how to fail professionally and then succeed professionally. Right? Yeah. The students are wonderful. If you, if you give them responsibility, it's amazing. You'll see them perform. But if you try to dominate too much, you'll suppress, uh, initiative kind of thing.
[00:38:00] So, so that's my approach is I let's tune and say, and I tell them. You teach me you're in a discovery mode. You're going to find new information that I don't know in this way. Students come in and build confidence. It's a confidence builder and an innovation because those students will come back with great ideas.
[00:38:16] They've surprised me all the time, uh, as they come up with ideas to go, Hey, I hadn't thought about. Because it's research. Right? And so it's something new it's discovery, which is what we do at USU. And that is why after 40 years, I can still be very enthusiastic because your students always surprise you with what they come up with.
[00:38:36] Wyatt Archer: So you're not just engineering ways to grow algae you're engineering, people go forth and grow research.
[00:38:43] Ron Sims:. Exactly. Exactly. It's all one, isn't it? Yeah. Yeah. You're your engineering people. And in this case, you're doing it out of a motivation to make them better, not so you can dominate or be the boss or be something you're, you're trying to help them be better people by giving them experiences through engineering of.
[00:39:04] And then moving forward. Yeah.
[00:39:06] Wyatt Archer: So, Ron has restored soil and Libby Montana developed ways to turn wastewater into a resource and been a huge part, creating a more efficient way to develop a workforce of biological engineers to deal with the other problems. Our society faces. And I think that's, I think it's, I think it's just great.
[00:39:28] So thank you for listening to this episode of instead, please subscribe in whatever app you use and go check us out on Instagram at instead podcast. Thanks for listening. This episode was produced by me, Wyatt Archer, as part of my work in the office of research at Utah State University.