Researchers Present Findings at 251st ACS Meeting

VIDEO: Researchers Power Biological Fuel Cell with Waste Tomatoes

A biological fuel cell that converts tomato waste to energy has been successfully demonstrated by researchers tested the rom South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.


A biological fuel cell that converts tomato waste to energy has been successfully demonstrated by researchers tested the rom South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

Findings from the research were presented by Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, Ph.D., and his team at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Diego last week.

Gadhamshetty began the research several years ago as a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. He stressed that the project is important to Florida, where tomatoes are a key crop, because the state generates 396,000 tons (360,000 tonnes) of tomato waste every year but lacks a good treatment process.

The pilot project involved a biological-based fuel cell that uses tomato waste left over from harvests in Florida. According to Gadhamshetty, the inherent characteristics of the decomposing waste make it a “perfect fuel source” for enhancing electrochemical reactions.

In addition to imperfect tomatoes not suitable for grocery store shelves, waste can come from the leftovers of manufacturing processes of sauces, ketchup and other cooking products.

“A lot of tomato waste is produced with a lot of chemical energy sitting there. We wanted to see if we could use this waste as a source of electrons,” explained Gadhamshetty.

The researchers tested the defective tomatoes in a new electrochemical device built at the South Dakota Mines campus, which degrades tomato waste and then extracts electrons.

So far, the power output from the mini-reactor is small: 10 milligrams of tomato waste can result in 0.3 watts of electricity. But the researchers said that with an expected scale up, and more research, electrical output could be increased by several orders of magnitude.

According to Gadhamshetty, to convert waste into household electricity, “it might be possible to one day put this device at the bottom of my kitchen sink”.

The researchers added that the technology has the potential to offer an inexpensive alternative fuel source because it operates at room temperature and requires no major investment of materials.

Gadhamshetty and SD Mines graduate student Namita Shrestha are collaborating on the project with Alex Fogg, an undergraduate chemistry major at Princeton University. Other project collaborators include Daniel Franco, Joseph Wilder and Simeon Komisar, Ph.D., at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“I come from a small country, Nepal, and we have power cut off as much as 20 hours in a day, so this could really help developing countries,” commented Shrestha. “We cannot afford expensive technologies.”

90 Days of Disney

According to Shrestha’s calculations, there is theoretically enough tomato waste generated in Florida each year to meet Disney World’s electricity demand for 90 days, using an optimised biological fuel cell.

“Research that crosses disciplines like this project, involving biochemical engineering and civil engineering, is increasing at Mines and can make a great contribution to solving 21st century problems,” commented Heather Wilson, South Dakota Mines president.

Gadhamshetty’s research has been featured in international media outlets including Newsweek,CNN Money, Yahoo! News, MSN and international newspapers such as Times of India. Gadhamshetty was also invited to talk with the BBC World Service Newsday program with more than 280 million listeners.

The American Chemical Society news release featuring the interview with Gadhamshetty and Shrestha can be viewed below.

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