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Waste Not
Turning Trash Into Treasure in the Name of Ending Food Waste

With one-third of the world’s food — approximately 1.3 billion tons — lost or wasted, finding solutions that keep waste out of landfills is just as important as stopping food waste at the source. Two new technologies could, however, hold the key to a zero-food-waste future.

Researchers at Cornell University have developed a new technique to turn food waste into fuel in record time.

“Food waste should have a high value. We’re treating it as a resource and we’re making marketable products out of it,” said Roy Posmanik, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell. “Food waste is still carbon — a lot of carbon.”

While traditional food-to-fuel technologies typically rely on anaerobic digestion, a process which slowly breaks down organic matter and captures the resulting methane to use as fuel, Cornell is employing hydrothermal liquefaction to rapidly turn food scraps into bio-oil. The process is similar to that of a pressure cooker, with the scraps being subjected to moderate temperatures and high heat.

Following the bio-oil refining process, a watery liquid remains, which can then be subjected to anaerobic digestion to convert the waste into methane and generate commercial amounts of electricity or heat.

“If you used just anaerobic digestion, you would wait weeks to turn the food into energy,” said Posmanik. “The aqueous product from hydrothermal processing is much better for bugs in anaerobic digestion than using the raw biomass directly. Combining hydrothermal processing and anaerobic digestion is more efficient and faster. We’re talking about minutes in hydrothermal liquefaction and a few days in an anaerobic digester.”

Meanwhile, a new European Commission Horizon 2020 framework funded project is pushing the envelope on 3D printing, fueling innovation with food.

Project BARBARA (Biopolymers with advanced functionalities for building and automotive parts processed through additive manufacturing), a 36-month long research project between researchers across Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, has found a way to use biomass materials at an industrial level. Plastics such as PLA which are based on biomass materials are commonly used for small-scale consumer 3D printing, but have yet to infiltrate commercial applications.

The project is organized by AITIIP Technology Center, a private R&D foundation in Aragon, Spain. AITIIP will spearhead the development of the new 3D printing procedure and manufacturing the prototypes for the automotive and construction industries. Italy’s University of Perugia will monitor the entire Project BARBARA process and the other project participants — Fecoam, Cargill, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, CELABOAR, the University of Alicante, NUREL, Tecnopackaging, ACCIONA Construcción and Centro Ricerche FIAT — will cover the entire project chain, from food and waste suppliers to fuel the process to end-users.

The BARBARA project aims to drive the development of an innovative and forward-looking modern industry with the potential to revolutionize the production of new materials. “An industry more in tune with the environment and where new more environmentally friendly extractive processes are implemented, thus potentially reducing energy and materials consumption,” AITIIP said in a statement.

Products such as dashboard fascia and car door handles, as well as molds for truss joints are slated to be the first prototypes produced. If successful, the project could set a new precedent for the automotive and construction industries, amongst others, creating new value chains and lower-impact products and materials, while also keeping food waste out of landfills.


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