Energy & Green Tech

Engineers are attempting to use microbial fuel cells to extract energy from waste fruit.

At the point when Doc Earthy took care of his DeLorean food scraps in Back to the Future as fuel, it seemed like insane sci-fi.

Now that UBC Okanagan researchers are looking into the possibility of using solid and liquid fruit waste to power fuel cells, science is taking over that fiction.

Researchers are working to purify and enhance the energy output of discarded food, particularly fruit waste, which is abundant in the agricultural belt of the Okanagan Valley, despite the fact that the energy extracted from food scraps still pales in comparison to solar or wind power.

The BC Government claims that organic waste accounts for 40% of the material in provincial landfills. Food waste, in particular, is a growing issue in urban areas all over the world. This is somewhat the impulse behind a push to saddle this waste and transform it into energy, according to UBCO specialist Dr. Hirra Zafar.

“The release of harmful pollutants that cause environmental deterioration and health risks, as well as the production of methane, are all associated with current waste treatment methods like landfills and incineration.”

UBCO researcher Dr. Hirra Zafar.

Dr. Zafar asserts, “Food waste today is a sustainability challenge with negative environmental, economic, and social implications.” “A wide range of adverse environmental impacts, including acidic waste leachate, air pollution, methane production, and the release of harmful pollutants that result in environmental degradation and health risks, are associated with current waste treatment methods, such as landfills and incineration.”

According to Dr. Zafar, a researcher in the School of Engineering, microbial fuel cells use an anaerobic anode compartment to turn fruit waste into electrical energy. Organic matter is turned into energy by anaerobic microbes, which can live without oxygen, in this compartment.

Electrons and protons are released as a result of the electroactive microbes’ consumption of organic matter in the anode compartment. At the cathode, the electrons, protons, and oxygen combine to form water, resulting in bioelectricity.

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

Dr. Zafar, when processed through a microbial fuel cell, distinct varieties of fruits yield distinct outcomes, primarily as a result of their distinct biochemical characteristics.

She explains, “In the process of electrogenesis, carbohydrates are first degraded into soluble sugars and smaller molecules like acetate, which are then consumed by electroactive bacteria to produce electricity.”

Dr. Zafar and her managers, Drs. Nicolas Peleato and Deborah Roberts, researchers at the University of Northern British Columbia, are working to improve fruit’s bioconversion efficiency, which they hope will lead to higher voltage outputs.

The researchers discovered that, in contrast to Doc Brown’s fictional method in Back to the Future, in which he randomly throws in peels, the process was more effective and produced better results when food waste was separated and ground into small particles prior to processing.

However, challenges remain in changing food waste into bioenergy on a business scale. Zafar says this study supports the extraordinary conceivable outcomes of microbial energy units. Furthermore, transforming waste into green and sustainable power fills a double ecological need.

“Microbial power modules are truly at their formative stage, and they have such a lot of potential,” she adds. “Although the voltage remains low at this point, I am eager to learn how to increase their power output and implement these methods on a commercial scale.

The University of Northern British Columbia and UBC Okanagan collaborated on the study. It was distributed in the most recent version of Bioresource Innovation.

More information: Hirra Zafar et al, A comparison of reactor configuration using a fruit waste fed two-stage anaerobic up-flow leachate reactor microbial fuel cell and a single-stage microbial fuel cell, Bioresource Technology (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.biortech.2023.128778

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