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Tyler Pannell

DOE student researcher exploring ways to convert food waste into energy at ORNL

Tyler Pannell

Tyler Pannell, a participant in DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program concentrates on exploring ways to use food waste to create a useable bio-gas and develop microbial fuel cells aimed at helping industry re-use its wastewater. Click image to enlarge.

When you throw your food into the trash it likely ends up in a landfill. However, one University of Tennessee undergraduate student hopes to find ways to take waste and fuel the future.

Tyler Pannell, who earned both his B.S. in biology and M.S. in microbiology from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tenn., is digging deeper into the energy potential of organic waste courtesy of the Advanced Short-Term Research Opportunity program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The program is administered by Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Pannell is at UT working on a B.S. in Biosystems Engineering. The degree will help him obtain a professional engineering license.

Pannell took his first microbiology course while he was a junior at Tennessee Tech University, and his enthusiasm grew from there. “I was fascinated by the critical roles microorganisms have played in the development of human culture,” said Pannell. That initial curiosity led him to his current internship opportunity.

Organic waste collected from ORNL’s cafeteria provides the “fuel” for Pannell’s research. He uses a process called anaerobic digestion, which utilizes methane-producing micro-organisms to produce a biogas similar in feature and capability to natural gas. “Right now the primary method for disposing food waste is to discard it into landfills,” said Pannell. “Through this project, we are demonstrating the benefits of an alternative solid waste disposal method—one that shows it is possible to produce energy from food waste.”

Dr. Abhijeeet Borole serves as Pannell’s mentor in the program. He sees Pannell’s work as a window of opportunity for solving problems related to waste disposal and energy production. “The U.S. generates 34 million tons of food waste each year, which accounts for about 14 percent of the country’s municipal solid waste,” Borole said. “Harnessing the methane gas reduces the release of a potent greenhouse gas, while creating the potential for a source of energy production.”

“Dr. Borole has many years of relevant experience working with microbial fuel cells and alternative energy technologies,” answered Pannell when asked what he liked most about his mentor. “So, he is a gold mine of practical wisdom.” Every day in the lab, Pannell said Dr. Borole helps him “learn something new or at least learn a new way to approach a familiar problem.”

The biogas research constitutes only one part of Pannell’s internship. His interest in microbiology also has him looking at ways of developing microbial fuel cells, or MFCs. He said they are “a kind of bio-battery that uses micro-organisms to produce electricity while breaking down organic pollutants in industrial waste waters.” A fully developed MFC eventually can be used by industry to clean waste-water for re-use.

Pannell started work on both projects in May 2011. “My research, and the questions arising from my research, keep me thinking about the importance of sustainability and specifically, about the relationship between chemical/organic wastes and energy,” he said.

Eventually Pannell would like to be employed in industry or research and development, working on bioenergy or biomaterials development. “This experience has given me valuable practical engineering experience in research and development,” he said.