SD Mines Research Converts Tomato Waste into Electricity

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Researchers from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology have successfully converted tomato waste into electricity, paving the way for an efficient low-cost new alternative energy source.

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It might be possible to one day put this device at the bottom of my kitchen sink.

Researchers from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology have successfully converted tomato waste into electricity, paving the way for an efficient low-cost new alternative energy source.

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

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

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,” Gadhamshetty said.

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.

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

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

This alternative fuel source is inexpensive technology because operations can be conducted at room temperature requiring 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’m really excited about this research. 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,” Shrestha said. “We cannot afford expensive technologies like waste treatment.”

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

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 optimized 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,” said Heather Wilson, South Dakota Mines president.

The American Chemical Society is the world’s largest scientific society. The organization’s meeting is being attended by 15,000 researchers and exhibitors, with only a handful of the wide range of their scientific research projects selected for promotion through news releases and press conferences.

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

“This attention means a great deal to my scientific career, especially for these early stages of my career. It demonstrates we are working on innovative solutions to address some of the pressing environmental challenges facing the modern society," Gadhamshetty said.

In 2015 Gadhamshetty was named by the National Science Foundation with the most prestigious NSF CAREER award supporting junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars by integrating outstanding research and excellent education. That carries a $500,000 research grant.

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About SD Mines
Founded in 1885, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is a science and engineering research university located in Rapid City, S.D., offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university enrolls 2,843 students with a student-to-faculty ratio of 14:1. The SD School of Mines placement rate is 98 percent, with an average early-career salary for graduates of $62,300, according to the 2015-2016 PayScale report. Find us online at http://www.sdsmt.edu and on Facebook and Twitter.

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