Maine college wins EPA grant for food waste-to-fuel research

By College of the Atlantic | January 04, 2013

College of the Atlantic was one of only three New England institutions to receive a competitive grant from the U.S. EPA geared to sustainability explorations. The grant, for $15,000, enables the college to continue to explore the possibility of turning food waste into a resource for liquid fuel or biogas by fermenting the sugars in the waste.

Ryan Bouldin, COA faculty member, is the lead investigator on the EPA grant turning food waste into fuel.

The idea, says COA faculty member Ryan Bouldin, who holds a PhD from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is to explore technologies that find treasure in trash. It began with student Nicholas Harris, a 2012 graduate. Working with classmate Matthew McElwee ’12, Harris launched a multidisciplinary project he called Gourmet Butanol, exploring the business and scientific possibilities of turning food waste into fuel.

Bouldin, working in chemistry and mathematics, is the principle investigator on the project for the EPA program.

The team worked to develop a simplified method to pretreat food waste for efficient fermentation that could produce liquid fuel, butanol and other alcohol fuels for purposes ranging from drop-in replacements for gasoline to agricultural amendments.

The technical challenge to this project, known officially as “Novel Co-Culture Process for Pretreatment of Food Waste for Alcohol Fuel Synthesis and Methanogenesis,” is to design and operate a system that doesn’t require significant external energy inputs and produces no waste stream or pollutants.

Nick Harris explains one step in the process of turning food waste into fuel as part of his senior project, Gourmet Butanol.

Taking its inspiration from nature, the team uses a mixture of fungi to break down organic matter and liberate fermentable sugars from the starches, cellulose, and fibers of food waste. The point is to isolate the sugar, which is fermentable—much as if the end product were beer or wine. The team is hoping that this pretreatment will replace the current costly, energy-intensive method generally used, involving high temperatures and strong acids.

The college is using the $15,000 from the grant—known as the National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet—to purchase the equipment necessary for the process. In the meantime, the team is watching how four different fungi species act on the waste under laboratory conditions.