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Seven Innovative Science Projects Aimed at Fighting Food Waste

Erin Meyer, Hazel Technologies
July 7, 2016 1:54pm CST

Food waste is an ever-growing issue. It overburdens our landfills, which contributes to greenhouse gases. It drains our wallets and taxes the environment by producing food that is never eaten.

Scientists are turning to food waste to brighten the future

Scientists are turning to food waste to brighten the future

Scientists are working diligently to re-purpose food waste. Here are seven projects you should know.

1. Using Tomato Waste to Generate Power
Scientists at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Princeton University and Florida Gulf Coast University have found that the antioxidant, lycopene, in tomatoes works as a powerful mediator for electrical charges. Tomato-based microbial fuel cells can thus be used to generate power. These fuel cells harness the electrons that are generated when bacteria break down the organic material. 10 mg of tomato waste can create .3 watts of power. To put this into perspective, a 60-watt light bulb would need 2,000 mg of tomato waste in order to run for one hour. That is less than one ounce of tomato waste.

Typically, biotechnology uses and performs best with pure chemicals as opposed to food waste. However, this important research shows that “electrical performance using defective tomatoes was equal or better than using pure substrates.” Therefore, tomato waste can effectively be used to generate power.

The research is ongoing to improve efficiency and scale it up, but the results look promising.

2. Improving the Science Fair Potato Battery
Scientists at Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University of California, Berkeley found that boiling the world’s most popular potato, the “Desiree,” boosts power transmission by up to ten times compared to untreated potatoes.

This research proves important because rural electric power grids may be hard to find in the developing world, but agriculture and potatoes are not. Potatoes provide a cheap power source: about $9 for each kilowatt-hour. In comparison, a C battery may cost about $68 for each kilowatt-hour and a six-volt lithium battery may cost roughly $1,200 for each kilowatt-hour.  

This research didn't test whether spoiled potatoes work better than fresh potatoes, but with so much excess potato waste in the fields, one could surmise that plenty of power could still be generated.  

3. Re-purposing Spoiled Potatoes into Medical and Beauty Creams
Scientists from the University of East Anglia have shown that potato waste can be recycled for use in cosmetics and beauty creams as well as medical wound healing and drug delivery creams. Specifically, the researchers are studying how the potato enzymes can be utilized to create starch-based gels using nanoscale fibers.

Not only does this reduce the problems associated with food waste, but it also works to reduce the production costs and CO2 emissions that come with the manufacture of conventional gels.

4. Upcycling Food Waste into Spandex
University of Minnesota researchers have created a new synthetic biological pathway that turns agricultural waste into various products such as spandex, chicken feed and food flavor enhancers. The pathway utilizes “nonphosphorylative metabolism,” which creates useful products from the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle in only 5 steps, as opposed to the usual 10 steps required by the TCA cycle. Having fewer steps in the cycle leads to a 70% higher yield in production.

Spandex is used in an estimated 80% of all clothing. So these findings provide a great way to repurpose food waste into a useful, prevalent product.

Researchers also noted that this new pathway is sustainable so it is better from the environment.

5. Powering Your Phone with Food Waste
A collaboration of researchers in Europe is working on the PlasCarb Project, which hopes to turn food waste into graphene. A low-energy plasma reactor is used to convert methane biogas generated from the anaerobic digestion of food waste into graphitic carbon by splitting into carbon and hydrogen. From there, it can then be turned into graphene.

Graphene works to store and maximize the power in smartphones. This work may also prove useful in the medical industry, water purification, aircraft technology, the car industry and food packaging.

This research is notable because graphene has been designated as an “economically critical raw material” by the European Union and the global graphite market is quickly expanding.

6. Preventing Disease with Papaya Peel Waste
Researchers at The Interdisciplinary Research Center for Regional Integral Development have created a way to extract and preserve the nutritional, functional and nutraceutical compounds from papaya peels.

The scientists hope to extract certain disease fighting, anti-oxidants and then add them to nutritional supplements that may prevent chronic degenerative diseases. Molecules in our body reacting with free radicals can cause some diseases, such as cancer.  These free radicals can be combated with anti-oxidants so a supplement with high levels of anti-oxidants can work to prevent diseases.

7. Wearing Our Waste
Scientists at Hong Kong’s Flagship Textile Research Institute and City University have found an effective way to turn food waste into polylactic acid, which then can be spun into fibers for textile use. A three step biological process takes starchy food waste and puts it through a lactic acid fermentation process called polymersation, which creates polymer chains. It then undergoes acid melt spinning, which converts it into a fiber. 10 tons of food waste produces one ton of material.

The research is ongoing to make a stronger yarn that can be used to create durable, wearable clothes, but the research is promising.

Scientists are working hard and finding innovative solutions to fight food waste. However to truly reduce food waste, we must all work together.

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