Playing the role of inventor and environmentalist
Ever since he was a kid, Casey Forrestal dreamed about being an inventor and helping the environment. In May he graduated with a PhD in civil engineering systems and is living his dreams, determined to use a technology he helped develop to solve hydraulic fracking water pollution problems.
“My main inspiration is nature,” says Forrestal. “I’m a big supporter of biomimicry, which is essentially engineering modeled off of natural systems.”
Under the guidance of affiliate professor Jason Ren, Forrestal spent the past three years conducting research related to microbial fuel cells (MFC) and microbial electrochemical systems (MES). An MFC uses bacteria to convert chemical energy—available in some types of organic matter—into electricity. MES is a platform technology that uses microorganisms to generate an electrical current that is then used to treat wastewater, desalinate salt water, sequester carbon dioxide, produce chemicals and more. Through his research, Forrestal, Ren and a professor from Colorado School of Mines, Pei Xu, developed an idea to incorporate a new method of desalination into MES technology called capacitive deionization (CDI).
“CDI desalinates salt water by applying electrical potential to electrodes to physically and electrically adsorb ions,” explains Forrestal. When the electrical potential is removed from the electrodes, the previously adsorbed ions are also removed and go back into solution—this is unique in that it provides a method to remove and recover salts from salt water.
Using this technology, Forrestal designed an MES called a microbial capacitive desalination cell (MCDC) that is capable of desalinating salt water, treating wastewater and generating electricity, as well as producing a concentrated saltwater solution.
“Using the MCDC system I also investigated its ability to treat produced water from the production of natural gas,” he says. “Produced water is a unique wastewater in that it has a high salinity as well as dissolved organics, which makes traditional water treatment options difficult.”
Using the MCDC system, Forrestal discovered that organic carbon, as well as dissolved salts found in produced water, could be removed while generating external electricity. “Few to no other technology can perform these functions simultaneously,” he says. “It’s also important for the industry because it means the technology is self-powering.”
In March 2013, Forrestal, Ren and Peter Jenkins, professor of mechanical engineering, formed a company called Bioelectric Inc. Bioelectric is a system manufacturing and services company that will use Forrestal’s patented MCDC system as well as other reactor configurations and operational methods for industrial application.
“Our go-to market strategy is to target developers in the unconventional natural gas industry for the sustainable treatment of produced water,” says Forrestal.
In April 2013 Bioelectric placed second in the CU Cleantech New Venture Challenge, a Department of Energy regional business competition. The company is currently in negotiations with industry leaders and investors.
Outside of his research, Forrestal enjoys movies, snowboarding, mountain biking, rock climbing, camping, hiking and running. He is also an avid home brewer, naming his most recent brew Oharra after the villain from the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon.
“I’ve been truly fortunate to get to where I am today,” he says. “In my last year of my undergraduate studies I met my wife to be, and we have been happily married for four years. Without her I could not have pursued my dream to help the environment and become an inventor.”
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