Skip to main content

Using Bacteria to "Pre-Chew" Waste

Three Birds in One

Like many, what motivated Skylar Van Horne to join the Honors Program was his passion for higher learning. A senior Biophysics and Chemistry major, he knew that his involvement in the Honors Program would further enrich his learning at this university beyond his own major. He was interested in how the unexpected connections courses could help him study more than one field and find connections as he narrowed down his own field of study. As he had hoped, his biggest takeaway from the Honors Program has been the ability to use techniques common to one field of study and apply them in unique ways, conceptually and sometimes practically, to another discipline. The interdisciplinary coursework and his great questions paper especially helped him to hone this skill. Now, he is polishing these skills with his own interdisciplinary research.

Skylar’s Honors thesis, titled “Biological Pretreatment of Biomass for Enhanced Biogas Production,” seeks to demonstrate how well a particular pretreatment bacteria can “pre-chew” different wastes. His project is part of ongoing research in the Hansen Green Group, a research-based lab in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at BYU. One of the major focuses of this group is essentially to harness the reaction that occurs in a swamp, where specialized bacteria break down a variety of different wastes and produce methane gas. This lab has worked for over 15 years on developing a novel system to produce methane gas as a source of renewable energy alongside "Grade A" fertilizer from nothing other than waste. This process has the potential to help solve world hunger with more fertilizer for crops and global waste management crises through environmentally friendly digestion methods all while producing a source of renewable energy. As Skylar put it, “Yes, that's three birds with one bio-chemo-mechanical stone.”

“My part in the process,” he explained, “consisted of developing and utilizing novel analytical chemistry methods to quantify key molecular intermediates that would demonstrate the digestion efficiency of our unique pretreatment bacteria, Caldicellulosiruptor bescii. Such data is vital to show how well this pretreatment bacteria can "pre-chew" different wastes before feeding said substrates to the anaerobic bacteria that produce the methane gas. It took me more than 6 months of working with various analytical chemistry experts before we could discover a method that worked in high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) to quantify acetate and lactate in these complex waste mixtures.”

Skylar’s Honors thesis has already led to noteworthy conclusions. Skylar and his team determined that the data they have obtained thus far alludes to C. bescii efficiently functioning as a pretreatment method for a variety of waste substances. One article on “Optimization of Pretreatment Methods in Anaerobic Digestion for Renewable Energy” is set to be published next year, and he is now putting the final touches on his thesis ahead of his December graduation with University Honors.

For others embarking on their Honors thesis endeavor, Skylar shares the following advice:

“Take advantage of research groups on campus here at BYU. The opportunity to be involved in hands-on, in-depth research as an undergraduate student is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you can get paid for doing it. There's likely a professor doing research in almost any topic you can think of on campus, so choose a college or department and find a time to talk with a professor about what research they might be conducting.”

Skylar also enjoys honing many different abilities and skills beyond his Biochemistry expertise, including photography, hip-hop instruction, and Spanish expertise. He is currently deciding between attending medical school or graduate studies after completing his undergraduate degree.