Clemson graduate student engineers are part of a collaborative multidisciplinary team working with the people of a small rural village in Belize to provide “free” sustainable energy for the village by converting food waste into fuel for cooking.

Shakira Hobbs, a PhD candidate in the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, first visited Sittee River Village in Belize while she was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland studying abroad. “I stayed in touch with one of the community leaders, Shelmadene Robinson, via Facebook, and she asked me several times to come back and do a sustainability project with them,” Hobbs explained.

Hobbs traveled to Sittee River this summer, along with Clemson University industrial engineering PhD candidate Myrtede Alfred and Arizona State University sustainable engineering PhD student Evvan Morton.

“Our goal for this trip,” said Hobbs, “was to determine how much food waste was produced in the village and the resorts nearby, and how much of the waste could be converted to methane.” The villagers currently use butane, which is non-renewable energy source and relatively expensive. By converting food waste to methane, the village would be less dependent on fossil fuels, and the residents would not have to spend as much of their income on fuel.

“We discovered that the amount of waste produced in the village and in nearby resorts is enough to displace the dependency on butane for cooking altogether,” said Hobbs.

As it decays, food waste produces a mixture of gases (biogas) including a high concentration of methane. This methane is a major component of the natural gas that is commonly used as fuel. Biogas generated by food waste decay can be captured and optimized through anaerobic digestion.

The team is planning to return to the village in 2017 to build and install a prototype digester at the local school. “We have received encouragement and support from Clemson and we are truly grateful,” said Hobbs. “Honestly, I do not see this project ending, but continually evolving. Waste management in developing countries is often such a highly complex problem that combines social, political, environmental and technological dimensions that have no particular solution. As the waste management needs of the village change, our strategies and goals should change as well. We use adaptive management technique skills like multicultural dialogue, targeted intervention and techno-social differentiation to understand the dynamic needs and goals of the community.

Hobbs and Morton were awarded an NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship: Solar Utilization Network (IGERT-SUN) Competitive Innovation Fund award from Arizona State to cover the cost of research trips to Sittee River. Myrtede Alfred, who was asked to join the team to lend her expertise in safety and usability of technology, was funded by the PEER/WISE Center and by Dr. Amy E. Landis, Thomas F. Hash 69 Endowed Chair in Sustainable Development and professor in the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering.

The team’s trip to Belize also presented an opportunity to expand the engineering pipeline to children who are excited about science and engineering “by teaching the engineering design process at the village’s summer school program,” explained Hobbs. The graduate students teamed up with about 30 students of all ages, working on hands-on projects that demonstrated how the design process can help repurpose materials that would otherwise be considered garbage.

Hobbs said “the community buy-in and support of the project is phenomenal, which is important to the success of any project like this. We really pride ourselves on empowering the community and developing organic relationships. While we were in Belize, we participated in cancer walks, summer school programs, softball games, and a birthday party. We want community members to find value in our research project so that it can be sustained. We approached this project as graduate students working with members of Sittee River Village to combine their expertise and experience with our education and research to develop sustainable waste to energy solutions.”