Guest Post by Tracy Saville, VP Marketing & Public Affairs, CleanWorld
CleanWorld, the company that brought Northern California its closed-loop food waste-to-energy BioDigesters in Sacramento and at UC Davis, is one of 96 clean-tech companies making the Capital Region a leader in climate-tech innovation. But first they had to have a winning technology that works, and that’s where Dr. Ruihong Zhang, this year’s 2014 Clean Tech Innovator of the Year, comes in.
“We think of Dr. Zhang as the Steve Jobs of anaerobic digestion because her innovations solved problems so that organic waste can be used economically and efficiently, then scaled ubiquitously. She’s allowed the world to use organic wastes as the valuable fuel sources they are, as a priority tool in helping to reduce climate impacts, increasing fuel security, and creating green jobs in the new climate economy.” Tracy Saville, CleanWorld
Since 2009, Dr. Zhang’s naturally-ingrained process of learning, discovering, and applying lessons learned has been recognized through numerous awards, including the 2013 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, a 2013 International Bioenergy Project of the Year Award, and a 2013 Game Changer of the Year Award from California’s Innovate North State, and this year, SARTA’s 2014 Clean Tech Innovator of the Year.
Dr. Zhang’s “High Solid Anaerobic Digester (HSAD)” technology was also recognized in 2006 by the California Energy Commission and CalRecycle for its capacity to address multiple economic and environmental issues, including the elimination of a waste stream that burdens our landfills, instead using it to create and capture methane (or biogas) and transforming that into electricity, transportation fuel, and fertilizer.
While anaerobic digestion is not a new process, Dr. Zhang’s innovations made it work faster and more efficient, making it possible for anaerobic digestion of food waste to be scaled and commercially viable.
“Converting wastes into useful products is far from easy. Hundreds have tried. After twenty years of hard work, not only has Dr. Zhang proven her process works, but that it is marketable. Being marketable is the key to making an innovation spread and hers will spread worldwide.” Gary Simon, SARTA CleanStart Chair and President, Sigma Energy Group
According to the Commission on the Economy and Climate the world needs $45 trillion dollars of investment to fuel winning clean tech in the 2015-2013 time frame. Sacramento leaders and groups like SARTA are doing their part to fuel that supply chain, as are leading research universities such as UC Davis, where Dr. Zhang’s research and demonstration of the technology was incubated.
It’s the homegrown nature of Dr. Zhang’s innovations coupled with her unassuming, yet warm and curious demeanor that presents such an interesting study in “what innovation” looks like today. As a full-time professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis, Dr. Zhang is also the Chief Technical Advisor to CleanWorld, and beloved by students and colleagues alike.
She is also currently working on innovating technology that will allow sugar beets to be the next commercial biofuel, proving that apparently, there is no such thing as resting on one’s laurels in the clean tech game. Dr. Zhang seems to know naturally that it always comes back to the simple problems that need solving in order to change the world.
Today, her research has drawn the attention and support of the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California Energy Commission, the California Air Resources Board, and numerous nations including China, Germany, the United Emirates, Canada, the Philippines, and Nigeria, all of whom want to bring her technology to their countries. Dr. Zhang’s technology is poised to be the leading market solution for the more than 160 anaerobic digestion systems needed in California alone, and a big fraction of the 11,000 facilities we need in the US. (White House Climate Action Plan’s BioGas Opportunities Roadmap. (August, 2014).
Considering the current market for Dr. Zhang’s technology in California is estimated to be over $1.5 billion, providing for a leading private investment opportunity in the industrial clean-tech space, and it could eliminate nearly 5 million tons of waste from our state’s landfills while producing enough energy to power more than 1 million homes, one has to ask: what’s next? “To design anaerobic digesters to be five times more efficient than current digesters”, says Dr. Zhang.
With the next generation of innovations in the areas of bioconversion coming from more efficient enzymes, microbes and equipment, and more intelligent control and monitoring software for lowering the system costs and reducing the footprint, it’s a good thing Dr. Zhang’s seven active technology innovation projects are leaving time to think about the future.
Dr. Ruihong Zhang was born in Inner Mongolia Province in China. She earned both BA and MS degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Agricultural Engineering respectively. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1992, where she first became interested in waste treatment and waste-to-energy conversion technologies. She served as an Assistant Professor at Iowa State University and moved to Davis, California in 1995, where she has been living, teaching, and inventing/researching ever since. She is also a member of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, and the Association of Overseas Chinese Agricultural, Biological, and Food Engineers.
She lives in Davis with her husband Zhongli Pan, himself a leading food-processing researcher and engineer, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis, and also a Research Engineer at USDA ARS Western Regional Research Center. She has a daughter, an eighth-grader, Julia Pan, whose talents are art and music. Her son, Philip Pan, is 23 and now a graduate student at Sanford University majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering.