UBC researchers investigate using fruit waste for fuel cells

The idea of powering a car with food scraps seemed like a far-fetched concept straight out of a science fiction movie, but researchers at UBC Okanagan are now investigating the possibility of using fruit waste to generate energy in fuel cells.

While fruit waste may not be as efficient as solar or wind power, researchers are focusing on refining and enhancing the energy output of discarded food, particularly in the Okanagan Valley, where there is an abundance of agricultural waste.

According to the BC Government, organic waste makes up 40% of the material in provincial landfills, with food waste being a significant problem in urban areas worldwide. UBCO researcher Dr. Hirra Zafar explains that this is driving the push to convert waste into energy.

Dr. Zafar, who is a part of the School of Engineering, says that microbial fuel cells can convert fruit waste into electrical energy using an anaerobic anode compartment. Anaerobic microbes within the compartment consume organic matter and convert it into energy.

These microbes release electrons and protons, which combine with oxygen at the cathode to generate bioelectricity, producing water in the process.

Dr. Zafar highlights that food waste is a major sustainability challenge with adverse environmental, economic, and social consequences. Current waste treatment methods, such as landfills and incineration, lead to a wide range of environmental impacts, including air pollution, methane production, and harmful pollutant emissions, resulting in health risks and environmental degradation.

Graphical abstract. Credit: Bioresource Technology (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.biortech.2023.128778

According to Dr. Zafar, different types of fruits yield different outcomes when processed through a microbial fuel cell due to their unique biochemical characteristics. The carbohydrates in fruit waste are broken down into smaller molecules such as acetate, which are then consumed by electroactive bacteria to produce electricity through the process of electrogenesis.

To increase the bioconversion efficiency of fruit waste and produce higher voltage outputs, Dr. Zafar and her supervisors Drs. Nicolas Peleato and Deborah Roberts from the University of Northern British Columbia are working on improving the process.

Unlike the random approach used by Doc Brown in Back to the Future, the researchers found that separating and grinding the food waste into small particles before processing resulted in a more efficient process with better output.

While challenges still exist in converting food waste into bioenergy on a commercial scale, Dr. Zafar believes this study demonstrates the potential of microbial fuel cells to transform waste into renewable energy while also benefiting the environment.

“Microbial fuel cells are in the early stages of development and have a lot of potential,” she says. “While the voltage output is currently low, I am excited to explore ways to enhance their power output and apply these techniques on a commercial scale.”

The research, published in Bioresource Technology, was a collaboration between UBC Okanagan and the University of Northern British Columbia.

Source: University of British Columbia

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