Domestic reactor turns food waste into fuel

Sensemaking / Domestic reactor turns food waste into fuel

17 Feb 2011

Will kitchens become the new gas stations?

What do you do with the food left on your plate at the end of the meal? For many of us, the answer is a guilty shrug: it goes straight in the bin. All those little scrapings of chips and peas add up to a mountain of lost resources. Indeed, it is estimated that up to half of the food produced for the US market goes to waste; and, in the UK, up to 6.7 million tonnes of household food is binned each year. Council food recycling schemes remain sporadic, so as little as 3% of this organic treasure is composted or sent to anaerobic digestion plants. The remainder is sent to landfill, where it gradually decomposes, leaching out methane into the atmosphere.

But now you can scrape your plate straight into a domestic fuel conversion system. Californian start-up E-Fuel has launched a reactor capable of converting organic kitchen waste, and any cellulosic materials such as wood, into sugar water within just two minutes. The 'MicroFusion Reactor' is a standalone appliance which uses hydrolysis to break down the raw materials.

The only by-product is lignin powder, a valuable ingredient used in many pharmaceuticals. Of course, that's just part one of the process: you then need to turn the sugar water into ethanol for fuel. But this too can be done in the home. You simply feed the sugar water (adding in any waste alcohol you may have lying about) into a portable converter – the MicroFueler, also by E-Fuel – which comprises distillation apparatus and a holding tank. Thanks to "state-of-the-art semiconductor technology", the company claims, the whole process is combustion-free.

The ethanol can be used as vehicle fuel, as effectively demonstrated in Brazil where over 90% of cars produced are'flex fuel' (designed to run on any combination of ethanol and petrol – see 'Clean transport calls for sustainable sugar'). And it can also be connected to a generator to produce electricity. According to E-Fuel, one MicroFueler can produce over 300,000kWh of energy.

The newly launched MicroFusion Reactor is currently looking for 'Series A Funding' (the first significant round of venture capital finance), and so commercial costs have yet to be released. But the MicroFueler went on sale in 2009 for US$9,995, plus $1,995 for a fuel tank. Target markets for the two products include home users, commercial garbage disposal sites, schools and other large institutions. Overall, it's another example of the way smart thinking is being applied to harvest small but significant amounts of energy from sources close to the place where it will be used.

– Sam Jones

Image credits: E-Fuel Corporation

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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