Turning Tomatoes Into Electricity

Dr. Venkata Gadhamshetty discusses research to turn tomato waste into energy resource.

When a South Dakota Mines research team announced in March that it had successfully generated power with tomato waste, the world and international media elite immediately took notice. After all, it’s not every day that you hear about fruit being converted into electricity.

The research group led by Dr. Venkata Gadhamshetty, Mines graduate students and a researcher each from Princeton University and Florida Gulf Coast University announced findings at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Diego

Within hours, Dr. Gadhamshetty was interviewing with the BBC, and the news was written about by CNN, Newsweek, MSN, Yahoo news and the Times of India (to name a few), highlighting just one example of the important, world-changing research being conducted at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

The pilot project involves a biological-based fuel cell that uses tomato waste from harvests, grocery store shelves and production plants such as ketchup factories. The inherent characteristics of the decomposing leftovers make it a perfect fuel source for enhancing electrochemical reactions, Dr. Gadhamshetty says.

Researchers designed and built a new electrochemical device to test and extract electrons from the defective tomatoes. The power output from their mini reactor is small: 10 milligrams of tomato waste resulted in 0.3 watts of electricity. But Dr. Gadhamshetty notes that with a scaled-up device and continued research, electrical output could be increased by several orders of magnitude.

Their success paves the way for an efficient low-cost new alternative energy source. “It might be possible to one day put this device at the bottom of my kitchen sink” to convert waste into household electricity, Dr. Gadhamshetty notes. 

The project is especially important to Florida, where tomatoes are a key crop and 396,000 tons in discarded tomatoes are generated each year. Dr. Gadhamshetty’s team calculates there is theoretically enough tomato waste in Florida each year to meet Disney World’s electricity demand for 90 days using an optimized biological fuel cell.

The recent attention is not the first time Dr. Gadhamshetty has been recognized for his innovated research. In 2015 he received the prestigious CAREER award by the National Science Foundation. The award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars by integrating outstanding research and excellent education and carries a $500,000 research grant. This spring he was honored with South Dakota Mines’ Outstanding Faculty Research Award.

He is also currently researching the next generation of minimally invasive, corrosion-resistant coatings to help combat microbial-caused corrosion in water and oil pipelines, sprinklers, boat hulls, medical appliances and more. His research uses graphene as a protectant to address what is estimated to be a nearly $1 billion infrastructure in the United States alone.

Watch Dr. Gadhamshetty and his grad student Namita Shrestha explain their tomato research at a news conference hosted by the American Chemical Society. YouTube link

Last edited 11/3/2016 2:40:14 PM

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