Food waste can come from the fields, our kitchens and, of course, the table. More than 40 percent of U.S. food waste ends up in landfills, where it releases significant amounts of greenhouse gas as it decomposes. When current master’s student Enid Partika ’19 learned that fact as an undergraduate, she decided something needed to be done—and she started on campus.
As a member of the student-run organization Roger’s Community Garden, Partika and other students built an anaerobic digestion and biogas production system they named the BioEnergy Project. Their goal? Turn UC San Diego’s food waste destined for landfills into usable products—fertilizer for organic produce and biogas for electricity.
“We researched relevant literature and created a design that integrated hydroponics, solar power and biogas production into a single system,” says the environmental chemistry graduate. Last year, Partika and project partner Will Tanaka were awarded MIT’s 2019 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for their efforts.
In addition to the technology, they also established a student-run collection program to gather food waste from campus dining halls, nearby restaurants and grocery stores. In just one year, the team repurposed more than 42,000 pounds of food waste. They also worked to leverage the project into an educational platform for fellow students, which incorporates hands-on experiential learning with urban sustainable agriculture.
“We are already on our way to implementing more of our systems around campus to help the university reach its zero waste goal by 2020,” says Partika, who is now continuing her research and product development through the analytical and environmental chemistry master’s program.
Along with Tanaka, a current student in nanoengineering, Partika aims to bring this technology off campus as well to benefit those in the San Diego community. “We’re collaborating with the UC San Diego Bioregional Center for Sustainability Science, Planning, and Design to implement systems throughout San Diego,” says Partika, “especially in food deserts where we could provide healthy organic produce.”