Every year, Florida generates roughly 396,000 tons of tomato waste. Whether the fruit is unusable for market or the waste is a byproduct of ketchup and sauce manufacturing, that’s a lot of organic matter for a landfill.
Researchers from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology are looking to harness that waste to create electricity. They presented their research at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, which is being held in San Diego this week.
According to Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, the idea came about when he was a professor at Florida Gulf Coast Univ. He and a colleague wanted to figure out how to use tomato waste, which when left in a landfill can produce methane and when dumped in water can cause treatment problems.
“There’s a lot of chemical energy sitting in there (the tomato waste),” Gadhamshetty said at Tuesday’s press conference. “So we just wanted to try out and see if we can use (the) waste tomatoes as (a) source for electrons.”
The research team developed a microbial electrochemical cell, which uses bacteria to break down and oxidize the organic material in the tomato waste. Tomatoes, according to Gadhamshetty, have inherent characteristics, such as carbohydrates and the various other nutrients, which make them ideal of electricity production.
Additionally, the fruit’s natural pigment lycopene acts as a mediator in the device. That means that it acts like a shuttle, carrying electrons from the source to the electrode, and then looping around and performing the task again.
“They could be very useful for enhancing electrochemical reactions,” Gadhamshetty said.
Currently, power output is small. Using the device, the team generated 0.3 W of electricity from 10 mg of tomato waste.
While it’s not much, Namita Shrestha, who is working on the project, said when such a technology comes to fruition is will be of great import to developing nations like Nepal, where she is from.
Theoretically, the yearly amount of tomato waste generated by Florida could power Disney World for 90 days using a proper biological fuel cell.
Moving forward, Gadhamshetty said the team will investigate the fundamental electron transfer mechanisms, and work to increase the function of the cell they’ve developed.
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