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Photo: ARS technician David Bozzi (left) and microbiologist Diana Franqui study samples of pulp from city garbage and plant material. Link to photo information
ARS technician David Bozzi (left) and microbiologist Diana Franqui study samples of pulp—from city garbage—and plant material as a potential source of bioenergy. Click the image for more information about it.

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City Trash Plus Farm Leftovers May Yield Clean Energy

By Marcia Wood
October 7, 2008

Tomorrow's household garbage might be blended with after-harvest leftovers from fields, orchards, and vineyards to make ethanol and other kinds of bioenergy. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are investigating this straightforward, eco-friendly strategy in their laboratories at the agency's Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif.

In most instances, agricultural wastes like rice straw, almond hulls, and the oversize outer leaves of iceberg lettuce will have to be pretreated before being used as a bioenergy resource. That's according to Kevin Holtman, an ARS research chemist who's working out the details of the garbage-to-gas approach.

The garbage, known as "municipal solid waste," or "MSW," would also be pretreated, Holtman noted.

The garbage would be processed in a jumbo-size autoclave, a device which acts something like a giant pressure cooker to convert the MSW into grey, lightweight clumps. The pretreated agricultural wastes and autoclaved MSW would then be transferred to a biofermenter. Yeasts and enzymes would be added, to make ethanol.

Holtman and colleagues David Bozzi, an engineering technician, and Diana Franqui, a microbiologist, are determining the best ways to use just water and heat, instead of hazardous chemicals, to pretreat the farm wastes, thus keeping the biorefining process environmentally friendly.

The team, part of the Bioproduct Chemistry and Engineering Research Unit at the Albany research center, is collaborating in the research and development venture with Comprehensive Resources, Recovery and Reuse, Inc., or "CR3," of Reno, Nev., and with the Salinas (Calif.) Valley Solid Waste Authority.

Besides producing biofuels, the biorefinery would also reduce the volume at landfills and minimize the need for new ones.

Read more about this research in the October 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.