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Researcher Says Biodiesel from Sewage Sludge Nearly Cost-Competitive with Petroleum Diesel

Existing technology can produce biodiesel fuel from municipal sewage sludge that is within a few cents a gallon of being competitive with conventional diesel refined from petroleum, according to Dr. David Kargbo, with the US EPA’s Office of Innovation, Environmental Assessment & Innovation Division in Philadelphia, PA. His analysis was published online in the ACS journal Energy & Fuels. Sludge is the solid material left behind from the treatment of sewage at wastewater treatment plants.

While conventionally pure vegetable or seed oils are used as raw materials for biodiesel, they are expensive, constituting between 70% and 85% of the overall biodiesel production cost, Kargbo says. As a result, he notes, the use of alternative nonedible feedstocks such as Jatropha, animal fats, and waste cooking oil is on the rise. Sludge is also a good source of raw materials for biodiesel.

Municipal sewage sludge is gaining traction in the US and around the world as a lipid feedstock for biodiesel production. First, municipal sewage sludge contains significant concentrations of lipids derived from the direct adsorption of lipids onto the sludge. These energy-containing lipids include triglycerides, diglycerides, monoglycerides, phospholipids, and free fatty acids contained in the oils and fats. In addition, microorganisms used in the wastewater treatment process utilize organic and inorganic compounds in the wastewater as a source of energy, carbon, and nutrients. The cell membrane of these microorganisms is a major component of sewage sludge and is composed primarily of phospholipids. It is estimated at 24% to 25% of dry mass of the cell and yields about 7% oil from the dried secondary sludge. Other studies have demonstrated that up to 36.8 wt % of the dry sludge is comprised of fatty acids and steroids. With the fatty acids from sludge predominantly in the range of C10 to C18, these are excellent for the production of biodiesel.

—Kargbo 2010

Other potential benefits of using sludge as a feedstock are:

  • It’s plentiful. In the US alone, approximately 6.2 million dry metric tons of sludge is produced annually by wastewater treatment facilities.
  • Sludge management is a formidable environmental challenge. Biodiesel production from sludge as a viable alternative to land disposal could help to solve both energy and environmental problems.
  • Capacity. Studies show that integrating lipid extraction processes in 50% of all existing municipal wastewater treatment plants in the US and transesterification of the extracted lipids could produce approximately 1.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, which is roughly 0.5% of the yearly national petroleum diesel demand.

However, he notes, sludge biodiesel also faces significant challenges, including:

  • Collecting the sludge.
  • Maintaining product quality.
  • Soap formation and product separation.
  • Bioreactor design.
  • Pharmaceutical chemicals in sludge.
  • Regulatory concerns.
  • Economics of biodiesel production.

Determining how best to collect the different fractions (primary and secondary) and treat them for maximum lipids extraction is a major challenge. To accelerate biodiesel production, cosolvents and high shear mixing have been proposed, he notes, but there is very little information on the cost-effective means of increasing lipid solubility.

Alkali-catalyzed transesterification is much faster than acid-catalyzed transesterification and is most often used commercially. However, for lipid feedstocks with greater than 1% free fatty acids (FFAs) such as in sludge, acid catalysis followed by base catalysis is recommended because of soap formation with alkali-catalyzed transesterification and high FFA.

To boost biodiesel production, sewage treatment plants could use microorganisms that produce higher amounts of oil, Kargbo says. That step alone could increase biodiesel production to the 10 billion gallon mark, which is more than triple the nation’s current biodiesel production capacity, the report indicates.

The presence of pharmaceutical chemicals in sludge poses a great challenge. This requires a careful selection of treatment technologies and microbes that are selective for these pharmaceutical chemicals. With these challenges addressed, however:

..biodiesel production from sludge could be very profitable in the long run. Currently, the estimated cost of production is $3.11 per gallon of biodiesel. To be competitive, this cost should be reduced to levels that are at or below the current petro diesel costs of $3.00 per gallon.

—Kargbo 2010


  • David M. Kargbo (2010) Biodiesel Production from Municipal Sewage Sludges. Energy Fuels, Article ASAP doi: 10.1021/ef1001106



"Municipal sewage sludge is gaining traction in the US and around the world as a lipid feedstock for biodiesel production. First, municipal sewage sludge contains significant concentrations of lipids derived from the direct adsorption of lipids onto the sludge."

Just an excellent idea. Incorporating this form of energy recycling into every municipal sewage treatment facility will provide a new domestic source of jobs and energy. AND reduce the amount of sludge going into landfill or runoff. A win win win...


Can this stuff also be used as a multiplier feedstock for other matter such as algae, or is that a role for the cleaned-up water that comes out at the other side of the sewage treatment process? Also what happens to the residual sludge at the end? Does that have any further potential for, say the development of gas?

Henry Gibson

Sorry folks! There is not enough energy in all the sewage sludge to make any substantial portion of the automotive fuels needed for the worlds automobiles. Sewage sludge contains only a small fraction of the harvested crops, and even these would not make much of fuels now being used.

Natural selection can create organisms that will make methane from all food wastes. Every automobile can be easily equipped by the manufacturer to burn mostly methane for twenty miles and then burn all gasoline for the rest of the trip. The tanks needed for compressed methane can be several small ones put in unused areas.

It is very easy for a person to make his own methane from sewage and even easier from good food or good food wastes. The methane can be compressed and used in dual fuel or natural gas cars or lorries.

It is now time for starting a new sewage system that has four pipes: Standard sewer!, Methane!, Oxygen Supply! and Carbon Dioxide Return! There will be no chimneys for modern houses or factories and no standard boilers. Fuel cells or Engines or turbines will burn methane(artificial or real natural gas) with oxygen and the CO2 will be returned to be recycled into methane, and water from sewage will also be recycled with the CO2. Nuclear energy will be used to convert CO2 and Water into methane in ever increasing amounts until no natural gas at all is being used.

Automobiles will be run most of the time on electricity, but liquid artificial Butanol will be converted from nuclear energy, water and CO2. Even the CO2 that people breathe out can be collected from the air circulation system of buildings. ..HG..


"Every automobile can be easily equipped by the manufacturer to burn mostly methane for twenty miles and then burn all gasoline for the rest of the trip. "

Hmmm...maybe at a minimum (not the ideal but hear me out) we could give incentives for the production, conversion to, and use of a natgas tank for daily use (20-40) that would directly use the model of the PHEV as in short-range alternatives to gasoline before resorting to it for longer range needs. That way, it's a poor-man's PHEV and has the obvious advantages of also being able to refill at home, each and every day. You could retrofit the entire US fleet to using this model, saving billions of gallons of gasoline where a decent percentage of daily car usage might only use the natgas portion.

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