Campus News

Waste not, want not

Researchers look for ways to turn waste products into fuel

Anyone who has ever dropped a piece of food on the floor has certainly pondered the five-second rule, which states-rather dubiously-that food that lands on the floor is good so long as it hasn’t been on the ground for more than five seconds.

Fortunately, the five-second rule doesn’t apply to the food industry. Even better, researchers at the University of Georgia Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program are finding ways to turn waste products from the food, forestry and agriculture industries into fuel.

“We’re literally making ethanol out of cake here,” said Dan Geller, a Faculty of Engineering outreach member and public service ­representative.

“There’s cake that falls off the line in bakeries, and they can’t sell that to people,” he explained. ­”Normally that gets landfilled or turned into feed. Well, it contains a lot of sugar so you can just take that and make it into ethanol.”

Using the proper techniques, other waste products such as scraps of wood left after timber harvesting, chicken litter and chicken fat from the state’s poultry industry also can be converted into fuels.

UGA researchers have been exploring alternative fuels for more than 20 years. In 2001, they began reaching across campus to create the interdisciplinary Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program, which works to develop and then broadly implement technologies that use renewable fuels to reduce the state’s dependence on imported petroleum.

“We’re not necessarily creating a center with four walls and a roof, but we want a center that is made up of people across campus and across a bunch of varied disciplines,” said Ryan Adolphson, director of the UGA Biomass Processing Facilities. “It’s going to take a group like that to address the challenges of meeting the state’s fuel needs.”

Adolphson said researchers in fields as diverse as chemistry, forestry, nanotechnology, poultry science, agriculture, business and computer science have a role to play making renewable fuels a more viable option for Georgia. The benefits to the state are economic and environmental, as products are turned into revenue streams and the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere is reduced.

Tom Adams, who directs the UGA Faculty of Engineering outreach service, said that the program has been funded $1.25 million each year for the past two years from the federal Department of Energy. It also has received between $400,000 and $500,000 in annual funding during that time from the state government as well as grants from private industry.

Geller said that while the program’s short-term goal is to maximize the use of the state’s current resources and waste products as fuel, the long-term goal is to develop dedicated crops that can be grown in Georgia for fuel sources so that the state’s economy can further benefit.

UGA’s program is distinctive because researchers are studying several alternative fuels-biodiesel from oils, diesel from woody sources and ethanol from starchy crops-rather than just focusing on one technology. They’re also working to integrate the processes so that the byproducts of one process can be used to drive others. Glycerin that’s created as a byproduct of the biodiesel process, for example, could be fermented to create ethanol.

“The overriding goal of this research is to tie all of these things together,” Geller said.