| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


There's Gold in Them Thar Sewers

The annual Pennsylvania Farm Show, held in Harrisburg every year since 1917 and essentially considered to be the Commonwealth's state fair, is one of the last places on earth you might expect to run into an eco-entrepreneur like Emily Landsburg. Her appearance at this year's fair is meant to be something of a publicity stunt, with the main beneficiary being the truly astonishing chemical conversion system developed by her Philadelphia-based company, BlackGold Biofuels, which turns formerly useless waste into biodiesel fuel.

And as for Landsburg's specific assignment? She was tasked with transforming a rancid, 800-pound butter sculpture of Ben Franklin and the Liberty Bell into clean, useable biofuel.

According to a New York Times article that documented the process, "Each year the Pennsylvania Farm Show commissions a masterpiece made out of butter. In 2007, the organizers solicited suggestions for what to do with the work after the farm show ended."

A biochemist with the Department of Agriculture suggested that Landsburg demonstrate her system, which did in fact convert the butter sculpture--a useless fat that would have otherwise found its way into the Harrisburg sewer system--into valuable, clean fuel.

"It was sort of characteristic of where the agriculture industry is right now," Landsburg explained of the butter-to-fuel stunt, in a recent telephone interview. "And it's characteristic of a more holistic view that the market is taking. So as part of that, we participated in the farm show, even though our product is really from an urban waste."

Landsburg's entrepreneurial journey certainly started out modestly enough: Her first official company, which she launched and subsequently sold not long after earning an applied math degree from New York's Columbia College, was a Rhode Island-based venture that consisted entirely of boat maintenance. The business was a decent enough fit for Landsburg, a long-time sailing enthusiast. But after relocating to Philadelphia and taking a job with the Energy Cooperative, an ecologically-minded utility provider that deals in biofuels, she began setting her sights on a project that was substantially more ambitious.

That project, which was the catalyst not only for the farm show's butter stunt but also for Landsburg's current company, consisted of an idea that was largely untested in the industry. Essentially, she wanted to find a way to prove to municipal governments and large corporations that the use of biofuel could be affordable, as well as environmentally resourceful.

Interestingly enough, the magic bullet she stumbled upon was the decidedly nasty combination of fat, oil and grease--industry insiders refer to it as "FOG"--that has the unfortunate side effect of contaminating urban sewage systems. A byproduct of dishwashing and food preparation, FOG is in fact the same slimy, gooey sewer muck that municipal entities the world over spend a fortune trying to dispose of. And because of FOG's tendency to congeal inside sewer pipes ("like cholesterol in an artery," according to the BlackGold website), it is often the cause of dangerous and costly wastewater overflows. But as Landsburg and her colleagues brilliantly discovered, the very same sludge that is almost certainly collecting inside sewer pipes beneath your home right now can also be processed into incredibly clean biodiesel fuel.

BlackGold refers to the technology it developed to do just that as the FOG-to-Fuel system, and if enough municipal governments eventually choose to license the system--the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission was the first to sign on--it could literally transform our nation's dependence on foreign oil. It could also save a significant amount of money for taxpayers and local governments alike. According to BlackGold, "Wastewater treatment plants nationwide already spend millions annually to treat wastewater. Over the next 14 years, it is estimated that $202 billion must be invested in public wastewater facilities to continue operations."

Or to look at it from a slightly different perspective: That's a whole lot of money that doesn't actually need to be spent. In the eyes of Landsburg and BlackGold Biofuels, in other words, the sewer filth that dozens of major cities have long struggled to contain is suddenly worth nothing less than, well, gold.

What happens from here, of course, is anyone's guess. Throughout its relatively brief history, BlackGold has already been the recipient of a fair number of industry awards and accolades. Bloomberg Business Week recently named it one of America's top five most promising social entrepreneurs. And investors, including Landsburg's former employer, the Energy Cooperative, have put more than $1 million into the company in the form of cash and grant funds.

But the real test still resides with the country's various municipal officials, who have the power to license the FOG-to-Fuel technology if they so desire. And perhaps not surprisingly, BlackGold does have something of a broader long-term vision, according to Landsburg, which will involve other forms of resource recovery from wastewater streams.

"Fossil fuels are finite," she adds, when asked if she can envision a day when all of our nation's fuel comes from waste. "And so the more fuels we can recover from waste streams, the more efficient and profitable that will be. But I really don't think there is one silver bullet. I think that in the future, we need to make a lot of changes to our energy sources. Single-source reliance on two or four [energy] resources is not a smart, long-term solution."

DAN ELDRIDGE is a journalist based in Philadelphia and the author of Moon Pittsburgh, 2nd edition, forthcoming from Avalon Travel in June 2011. Visit him online here, or read his entrepreneurship blog here. Send feedback here.


Emily Landsburg and the BlackGold Biofuels team meet to discuss what's next.


Raw material shown at right, finished refined product at left.

Blackgolds's FOG-to-Fuel system in San Francisco (courtesy of BlackGold Biofuels)

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO unless noted

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts