Homes of the future could be powered by old, ugly tomatoes

Tomatoes: they're acidic, tasty, and sometimes ugly. The especially ugly tomatoes usually don't make it to market, at least not in ordinary supermarkets, nor do the ones that were damaged or started to go bad during harvest. This translates into a lot of tomato waste, something our increasingly resource-conscious world finds unfortunate. Enter the American Chemical Society and a new project it has detailed: turning waste tomatoes into biofuel cells.

A group of researchers recently showcased their tomato-energy project at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, revealing that spoiled and otherwise unwanted tomatoes from harvest time can be used to generate electricity. The process is a little more involved and sophisticated than jamming a couple nails in a tomato and wrapping a wire around them, though.

To address the thousands of pounds of tomato waste produced in Florida every harvest season, the researchers developed a microbial electrochemical cell that generates an electric current from the tomato products. Bacteria results in an oxidation process that releases electrons into the fuel cell — surprisingly enough, the researchers found that tomatoes' lycopene pigment helps generate these electrical charges.

The news is particularly exciting considering the amount of tomato waste produced every year. In Florida alone, harvest time means 396,000 tons or so of tomato waste, and that's only one state. Still, it'll be a long while before we see any significant electricity generation from tomatoes. In its present state, the researchers' device outputs a third of a watt of electricity, something future research will increase.

Said South Dakota School of Mines & Technology Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, Ph.D:

Typical biotechnological applications require, or at least perform better, when using pure chemicals, compared to wastes. However, we found that electrical performance using defective tomatoes was equal or better than using pure substrates. These wastes can be a rich source of indigenous redox mediators and carbon, as well as electrons ... Our research question at this time is to investigate the fundamental electron transfer mechanisms and the interaction between the solid tomato waste and microbes.

SOURCE: American Chemical Society