A team of mechanical and civil engineering students at Virginia Tech University designed and built a system that uses food waste from a campus dining hall to generate methane gas. The methane gas is used to power a generator that produces nearly 5 kilowatts (kW) of electricity. 5 kW solar systems are the average size for residential solar panel installations in the United States, meaning that a system of this size would provide sufficient power for an average American home. The Virginia Tech system, which weighs more than 6,000 pounds, was built on a 22 foot flatbed trailer and consists of a 1,000 gallon anaerobic reactor, two flexible gas holders to collect and store methane gas, and an electric generator.


The press release did not indicate how much waste food was required to produce 5 kW of electricity. Considering that the team had access to a significant quantity of food waste from a campus dining hall, this system would likely not be viable for a typical American home. However, a similar system could be effective for industrial facilities that process large quantities of food. Disposal costs for food wastes can be significant, which is one important reason why the concept of converting waste products to fuel offers so much potential. Although the Virginia Tech system was developed specifically to process food waste from a campus dining hall, other organic waste sources could have been used. One popular source for waste to fuel conversions is Fats, Oils, and Grease (FOG). FOG is readily available from almost any fast food restaurant, commercial food processing businesses, and even households.


The potential applications of waste to fuel technology, whether using food waste or FOG, are numerous. The fuel could be used to power a typical home, provide auxiliary power to an industrial facility, or even be refined to power a diesel vehicle.


William Shane is an Environmental Engineer at Smith Management Group. William can be reached at williams@smithmanage.com.