UGA researcher Gary Hawkins looks at rotting fruits and vegetables differently than most people. Where they may see useless balls of moldy fuzz, he sees fuel.
As they break down, fruits and vegetables can be harvested for methane or natural gas, he said. This gas can be used to heat greenhouses, shops or homes. It also can fuel electricity-producing generators or heat areas where vegetables need to be cured.
Giving fruit and vegetable growers and packing houses the ability to produce their own natural gas—both easily and affordably—is one of Hawkins’ goals. The other is to see waste put to good use.
“If we can get the process down, packers and producers should be able to make money off of it,” said Hawkins, a pollution prevention and alternative energy specialist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
He’s got plenty of produce with which to work. In Georgia, fruit and vegetable growers harvested 390 million pounds of produce in 2007, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Up to 8 percent, or 31.2 million pounds, of that was discarded at packing houses.
And packing houses aren’t the only sources for produce. About half of the fruits and vegetables grown in Georgia each year are left in fields after the harvest ends.
Not all produce is created equal when it comes to methane-producing potential. On the vegetable side, onions have the highest energy density and have the potential to produce the most methane. On the fruit side, blueberries are the winners from those tested by Hawkins.
Georgians grew 13,839 acres of onions in 2007 and 10,664 acres of blueberries that same year.