This Tech Can Turn Food Waste Into Graphene, Power, And Fuel

Graphite, a product of graphene, is a critical raw material that's 100 times stronger than steel

Your forgotten, moldy leftovers and rotting banana peels may be eventually be reborn as graphene for batteries (or ultra-thin condoms) or hydrogen to power fuel cell cars.

PlasCarb, a new E.U.-funded project based in the U.K., is working to perfect a process that turns food waste into valuable raw materials. The process starts by using anaerobic digestion to turn rotting food into biogas, something that's already being done at places like this grocery store chain to create electricity. But then PlasCarb goes a step farther, turning some of the biogas into graphitic carbon and hydrogen using a new, low-energy plasma reactor.

"The EU has designated graphite as one of the EU’s 14 economically critical raw materials, and it's imported in substantial quantities into the EU," says Neville Slack, the PlasCarb project manager for the Centre for Process Innovation, the tech research center leading the project. Graphite can produce graphene, a much-hyped new material that's 100 times stronger than steel and can make everything from more efficient lightbulbs to, potentially, new treatments for cancer.

The researchers have already successfully transformed food waste into graphite and graphene, and now are working on refining the process. They've also demonstrated that they can make hydrogen, something that is usually made from fossil fuels. The hydrogen can be used as renewable fuel or turned into a new type of bio-plastic.

Of course, the best way to solve the problem of food waste is to actually eat the food that's grown, since so much energy is used to produce it. But as others struggle to figure out how to keep food out of the trash, PlasCarb hopes to offer an option for dealing with the waste we can't easily eliminate.

"The likelihood of food waste reducing is unlikely and in fact only likely to increase," says Slack, citing a 2010 report that suggested food waste in the EU would increase over 40% by 2020. "What then do we do with waste food? We could build anaerobic digestion plants, but how many will it require and what size? Alternative technologies like PlasCarb are interesting."

By Adele Peters