Bioprocess engineering is an exciting and growing field in which chemical engineering principles are applied to the use of biologically-based processes. The field is interdisciplinary, involving biotechnology, chemical engineering, microbiology and biochemistry and has a wide range of application areas including the production of food, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and the treatment of industrial wastes. Students can focus on fundamental engineering, chemistry and/or biology and interact with other faculty and industry on problems of economic and social importance.

One of my main areas of activity is in biological wastewater treatment, particularly as it relates to the pulp and paper industry. This is already applied in industry on a wide scale and continues to show enormous further potential, because of increasingly stringent environmental controls, an emphasis on minimum impact technologies, advances in biotechnology and the remarkable ability of microorganisms (wild or genetically engineered) to degrade a wide range of pollutants. The work to date has been on understanding and optimizing the biological treatment for a range of compounds and classes of compounds, reducing biosolids discharges/production, linking process operating conditions to system performance, floc microbiology and properties.

More recently, we have been focusing on biologically producing value added products (energy, biopolymers) from wastes and the processing of biological sludges. Specifically, we have several projects that examine the fundamentals of biosludge dewatering and applying novel biopolymers and processes to enhance biosolids processing, reducing energy costs and the environmental footprint. We also are investigating strategies to optimize anaerobic conversion of wastewater and biosolids into fuel. Another new area involves the utilizing wastewater and waste carbon dioxide to grow microalgae and convert it into fuels and chemicals. In particular, we have developed a patented ‘wave guide’ technology for growing algal biofilms that will reduce energy costs and allow us to effectively treat wastewater with reduced footprint. We are also working with Professor Frank Gu on coupling his solar based photocatalysis system with biological processes to degrade complex organics.

I have several areas of previous research and expertise that I still have an interest in though no current active projects. This includes my earlier research on transport phenomena in bioreactors, particularly focussing on the measuring the rheology of non-Newtonian fungal fermentation broths and its impact on mixing and mass transfer in fermentors. The biological treatment of waste of gas streams is another exciting area of that I have worked up until 2011 that began during my leave at Weyerhaeuser in Tacoma in 2994. The technology is being applied in Europe extensively and, because of its economic and environmental benefits will see increasing development and application in North America. I also worked on the adhesion of zebra mussels to materials with Professor Jan Spelt (PI) in our Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

Many of the projects involve looking more in depth at the microbial processes involved in collaboration with microbiologists. In particular, we are interested in how bioreactor operation influences the microbial community and physical/chemical properties of biofilms and flocs in these treatment systems and how this in turn affects transport processes such as mass transfer and settling. We apply advanced molecular techniques such as DNA fingerprinting to probe microbial community structure and advance microscopy and physical chemical measurements to analyze the physical matrix (biofloc or biofilm).

Our projects also often involve collaborations among engineers (chemical, mechanical, electrical, civil), microbiologists, biologists and chemists and also provide opportunities for advanced professional development (communication skills, team skills, etc.). All of these areas have both engineering (e.g., kinetics, modeling, optimization) and microbiology (e.g., identification, monitoring, molecular biology) aspects and have received significant funding from government and industry through the Pulp and Paper Centre.

Some Videos of the Lab Shown Below

A video showing Sergio Luna in the lab discussing his biosludge anaerobic digestion and other biosludge research