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Virgina Tech researchers discover method to turn food waste into batteries

What do apple cores, spent grain and walnut shells have in common? They could one day be used to power a data center.

As the world works toward economically and envi­ronmentally friendly ways to power these devices, two Virginia Tech researchers are investigating how food waste and its associated biomass can be converted into rechargeable batteries.

“This research could be a piece of the puzzle in solving the sustainable energy problems for rechargeable bat­teries,” said project co-lead Haibo Huang, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology. “Demand for these reusable batteries has skyrocketed, and we need to find a way to reduce the environmental impacts.”

The research is funded through a three-year, $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Founda­tional and Applied Science Program with the priority area of bioprocessing and bioengineering. The grant runs through April 2023.

Using carbon derived from agricultural waste to host alkali metal, such as lithium and sodium, the researchers found that fiber components were key to developing a battery anode (the negative terminal on a battery). The waste materials used in this research are abundant and cost-effective, compared to limited resources such as graphite that are commonly used to make battery anodes.

The anticipated initial uses are to provide affordable energy storage solutions for data centers or other large facilities where the size of the battery is not a factor.

In the final two years of the project, the researchers will further test the food-waste-turned-carbon, with feedback from the lab to optimize the battery science. The final step will be an economic analysis on the market feasibility.

“We have the opportunity to solve two urgent issues in two different industries,” Huang said. “A lot of energy is already put into production and transportation in the food supply chain. We must recover the value from food waste. This is the perfect opportunity, as battery production looks for different materials than the traditional carbon.”

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