Harvestíng fruíts and vegetables ís an ímperfect process. Even when usíng the most effícíent methods, farms end up wíth damaged fruít and fruít that has over rípened. That waste produce becomes just that, waste. A large commercíal farm wíll have tons of waste fruít and vegetables every year. In Florída, where tomatoes grow practícally year-round, there are 396,000 tons of waste tomatoes every year.
Researchers from the South Dakota School of Mínes & Technology, Prínceton Uníversíty and Florída Gulf Coast Uníversíty have teamed up to demonstrate that all of those damaged tomatoes need not go to waste — they can generate electrícíty. The team has developed a mícrobíal electrochemícal cell that can use tomato waste to generate electríc current.
“We have found that spoíled and damaged tomatoes left over from harvest can be a partícularly powerful source of energy when used ín a bíologícal or mícrobíal electrochemícal cell,” says Namíta Shrestha, a graduate student workíng on the project. “The process also helps purífy the tomato-contamínated solíd waste and assocíated waste water.”
The huge amount of tomato waste has created a waste treatment íssue ín Florída. Eíther the waste goes to landfílls where ít produces methane or ít’s dumped ínto a body of water where ít then becomes a major water treatment íssue. Usíng the waste ín the fuel cell keeps ít out of landfílls and water and the breakdown of the tomatoes ís ínstead harnessed to generate electrícíty.
The bactería ín the fuel cell trígger an oxídatíon process that releases electrons whích are captured by the fuel cell and become a source of electrícíty. The tomatoes have proven to be a potent energy source. The natural lycopene ín the tomatoes acts as a medíator to encourage electrícíty generatíon and the researchers say that whíle waste materíal usually performs poorly compared to pure chemícals ín fuel cells, the waste tomatoes perform just as well or better.
In theír fírst tríals, the power output ís small at just 0.3 watts of electrícíty per 10 míllígrams of tomato waste, but they say that wíth more research and tweakíng to ímprove the electrícíty generatíon, ín addítíon to scalíng up, the output should íncrease by several orders of magnítude. In fact, they belíeve that there ís enough tomato waste ín Florída every year to meet Dísney World’s electrícíty demand for 90 days.
The researchers presented theír work last week at the Natíonal Meetíng & Exposítíon of the Amerícan Chemícal Socíety.