COA student’s project turns food waste into fuel

Posted June 01, 2011, at 6:36 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — The idea of getting gas from food is not new, but a College of the Atlantic student has a plan to derive a cleaner fuel from the scraps we leave behind on our plates and kitchen counters.

More specifically, Nick Harris has a business plan that he hopes will provide COA and, eventually, the rest of Mount Desert Island with a clean-burning, sustainably produced fuel that they can use in their vehicles or furnaces. With help from a $73,501 grant from USDA to the college, Harris is establishing a business that will use food wastes from the college’s kitchen and from area restaurants to produce butanol.

Officials with COA and USDA gathered Wednesday morning at COA to get a firsthand explanation from Harris about how his process works, and what kind of future he envisions for his fledgling company, Gourmet Butanol.

The process of breaking food wastes down into clean-burning fuel is akin to two things we already are familiar with, Harris told them. The first part mirrors how humans digest food, he said, and the second part is like brewing beer.

Harris had a white plastic bowl, a blender, a Pyrex dish, and a couple of beakers of liquid in front of him to represent the different stages of the butanol production process. By removing the sugars from food waste and then fermenting them, he hopes to produce a fuel that will reduce the amount of food that goes to landfills, that is not imported from other countries, and that is produced in an environmentally friendly way and that burns much more cleanly than gasoline or other types of petrol fuel.

Harris said one of his business goals is to have all of Gourmet Butanol’s moving parts operating on MDI — from the collection of food waste, to the production and distribution of the fuel — so that it is sustained entirely by the local community. If MDI businesses and residents can support this type of energy production and usage, he said, others around the globe can do it, too.

“That’s the grander picture — to create a model for the rest of the world,” Harris said. “This really shouldn’t be called ‘waste.’”

Harris has been working with fellow COA students Lisa Bjerke, Matt McElwee, and Cayla Moore to develop his butanol production method and to establish Gourmet Butanol. He said the countertop process they have set up in a COA lab produces only half a gallon a week, but they are actively looking on MDI for 2,500 square feet of production space where they can churn out 140 gallons a day.

COA faculty member Jay Friedlander, who oversees the program, said the seasonal fluctuation of people and operating restaurants on MDI should not pose a problem for Gourmet Butanol. The company will be able to process food waste as it comes in during the summer and then store the resulting sugars it extracts, which will enable it to produce butanol year-round, he said.

Friedlander said COA’s business incubator brings together the type of people needed to make sustainable business ideas viable. The students involved in Gourmet Butanol have different interests in chemistry, mechanics, composting foods and community development, he said, and through the incubator program they’ve been able to get the scientific expertise they lacked from faculty member Don Cass and advice they needed from mentors with real-world business experience.

The collaborative effort should help ensure that the enterprise is successful both financially and environmentally, he said.

“You can’t do that from one perspective,” Friedlander said. “This is a win on every level.”

Virginia Manuel, state director for the USDA Rural Development program, told Harris and others that the federal agency is “pleased” to have helped Harris’ concept get off the ground.

“This is a great investment for us,” Manuel said. “It’s a top priority for us — renewable energy. There is a nationwide effort to solve the energy problem.”

Harris’ business concept, which won $2,000 in this year’s University of Southern Maine student business plan competition, is one of several developed by students in COA’s Sustainable Business Program that have benefited from USDA support. The COA program is geared toward providing student entrepreneurs with office space, local business mentors, and some startup financial assistance.

Other student concepts that have benefited this spring from the USDA funding include a planned bicycle taxi service in Bar Harbor; a sustainable foods consulting business; a commercial photography studio; and a mobile livestock slaughtering service.

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