Thursday, December 9, 2010

COWS: Turning Trash into Green

Have you ever wondered what happens to all the food waste produced by restaurants, supermarkets, and cafeterias? It turns out that these businesses spend billions of dollars every year to dispose of the waste in landfills, where it slowly decomposes and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A new company called ReGenerate wants to change this. ReGenerate is developing a technology that can turn food waste into biogas and a rich fertilizer – on site.

In doing so, companies would no longer have to pay for food waste disposal and could use the biogas to generate most of the hot water for their business by connecting it to their existing heating system. The result is a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions (since the food waste is essentially being recycled) and the creation of valuable commodity (biogas and fertilizer). And by keeping the waste on site, it will no longer take up space in the landfills that have become a point of controversy for communities across the nation.

How does this technology work? It relies on the same principles for digestion as a cow. Yes, a cow. Pulped food waste is fed into an anaerobic chamber (without oxygen) where bacteria break down the waste into natural gas (methane) and fertilizer components. ReGenerate affectionately refers to the technology as the Compact Organic Waste System (COWS). The company estimates that the fertilizer components would be picked up once every 20 days and transported to a nearby composting partner for sale to local businesses.

The idea and team that drive ReGenerate were formed at the University of Michigan. Believe it or not, the founding members were affiliated with the biogas club and formed a collaboration that was cemented between classes and happy hours. So far, the team has won funding from competitions sponsored by the University and state businesses, which were integral in driving the formation of the company and development of the technology.

ReGenerate has developed a business model that takes something with negative value (food waste) as a feedstock and transforms it into a valuable commodity. At the same time, they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving companies money. This is exactly the type of innovative thinking and ingenuity that will be required for the US and the world to address the global environmental challenges that will define our time.

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