Team Makes Fuel From Waste Food

Finding an alternative method of power generation is the idea behind a GkW Energy-sponsored Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Team that is using left over food waste from Turner Hall to product electricity as part of a biogas generator.

The generator, which will be on display during the Senior Design Expo April 28 at Squires’ Commonwealth Ballroom, uses food waste to generate enough electricity to run a typical home. The machine, built for educational purposes and to promote sustainable energy, weighs over 6,000 pounds and sits on a 22-foot long flatbed trailer with a 1,000 gallon tank, and two collapsible gas bags that gather methane gas. The generator providing the electricity was modified by the team to use methane instead of gasoline.

The team of eight mechanical engineering and one civil engineering seniors, spent a semester designing a system that would meet the conditions set forth in the industry sponsorship letter. As a target, the team set out to design and build a generator that would generate 1 kilowatt of power with a methane content of 50 percent. The end result generates nearly 5 kilowatts with a methane content of more than 60 percent.

The system uses a special ‘seed’ fluid that helps break down food waste to create methane, which is captured and stored in bags on a frame mounted to the trailer. The methane is then used to power an electric generator. A series of standard electrical outlets is mounted on the trailer for demonstration purposes and includes standard 120v outlets, as well as a 240v outlet used to run heavier appliances such as clothes dryers. By using methane generated from the waste, the small power plant generates enough power to run several homes.

Aside from its use as an educational tool, the relatively small system can be up-scaled for use on small farms, or other facilities where a significant amount of food waste is generated. As a side benefit, the waste product created by the system can be taken from the tank as a form of neutralized manure, which can be applied to crops without the odor normally associated with non-neutralized liquid manures.

According to Steven Cox, a visiting assistant professor with the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and President of GkW Energy, the capacity to generate electricity is really the side benefit of the project.

“When used at scale, a generator like this does several things,” he said. “First, it reduces the amount of product going into landfills – which the university pays for by the pound. Second, it means we aren’t shipping that product 75 miles and then returning 75 miles with compost, so it saves more money and lowers our carbon footprint by limiting mileage in large trucks.”

About 20 percent of the 50 senior design teams that will display their projects at the expo have industry sponsorship. The expo is open to the public and will take place from 1-3:30 p.m. April 28 in the Squires Commonwealth Ballroom.

The Biogas team includes: Jaime Sigala, Patrick Croghan, Sam Belvin, Kyle Haney, Kim Collins, Calvin Hutchins, Ben Crismore, and Daniel Cooke from Mechanical Engineering, and Matthew McGarry from Civil and Environmental Engineering.


Written by Rosaire Bushey