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Researchers aim to convert food waste to batteries

Researchers aim to convert food waste to batteries

Food waste could one day be used to power a data center. Researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University are investigating how food waste and its associated biomass can be converted into rechargeable batteries.

“The research could be a piece of the puzzle in solving sustainable-energy problems for rechargeable batteries,” said Haibo Huang, an associate professor in the department of food science and technology at Virginia Tech and co-leader of the research project. “Demand for reusable batteries has skyrocketed and we need to find a way to reduce the environmental impacts of batteries.”

Based on preliminary results the researchers found that the fiber component in food waste was the key to develop advanced carbon materials that could be used as a battery anode, the negative terminal on a battery.

“Our approach of using agricultural waste-derived carbon materials to host alkali metal, such as lithium and sodium, will bring advances to agricultural-waste processing and battery technology,” said Feng Lin, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and the project’s principal investigator.

Using waste-derived carbon materials as the host for metal anodes could significantly reduce alkali metal usage per battery, according to the researchers.

The researchers tested different types of food wastes to see if any could be used to make batteries.

“As a food-processing engineer I can modify the composition of the food,” Huang said. “I could take out proteins and lipids along with some minerals to see how it impacts battery performance.”

The researchers found that when certain compounds were removed the essential compounds of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin after thermal treatment could sufficiently work for a battery.

In the final two years of the project, the researchers plan to further test food-waste-turned-carbon, with feedback from the laboratory to optimize battery science. The final step will be an economic analysis on the feasibility of implementing the technology.

The technology could initially be used for affordable energy-storage solutions for data centers or other energy-storage facilities where battery size isn’t a factor. The researchers said they hope to be able to turn food waste into a carbon that lacks the impurities experienced today.

The research is funded through a three-year, $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foundational and Applied Science Program. The grant runs through April 2023. Visit vt.edu for more information. 

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