Press Release: “European research project heading for better composting of organic waste”

Posted Posted by Miroslav Spajic in News, Pressroom     Comments No comments

“COMPO-BALL”, a 3-year research and development project funded by the European Commission, develops a novel on-line wireless system for the measurement of temperature and humidity in composting material. Bringing together 16 partners from 9 European countries, the project kicks off this month in Barcelona and promises to bring affordable composting monitoring technology to the European composting industry.

Barcelona, Feb. 15 2010 –Composting is nature‘s way of recycling organic waste into valuable fertiliser. As approximately 45 – 55 % of the waste stream is comprised organic matter, composting can play a significant role in diverting waste from unsightly landfills. However, in order to optimise the quality of the resulting compost and to avoid undesirable odours or germs, composting needs to be well-controlled. In fact, composting piles are teeming with information about themselves- temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, odours, moisture, density and more. While seasoned operators may well approach a pile, sniff, touch and squeeze and have a good idea of what is going on at that particular moment, such an approach is highly subjective and dependant on operator skill and expertise.

“Moisture and temperature are critical for the composting process,” says Josef Barth, Managing Director of the European Compost Network ECN & ORBIT e.V., a collaboration promoting sustainable practices in composting across Europe and one of the industrial partners in the COMPO-BALL project. “If the compost is too wet it will start to ferment and smell badly. If it’s too dry, the process will slow down because the microorganisms cannot get enough nutrients to do their job properly”. Temperature is generally considered a good indicator of microbial activity. But measuring both moisture level and temperature is time consuming and patchy: “Temperature is usually measured by manually inserting a probe, and the moisture is measured by extracting samples that need to be analysed in a laboratory,” explains Mr. Barth says. “We clearly need a better solution.”

And indeed it looks like a better solution is in sight, and in the shape of novel sensor-balls called “COMPO-BALLs”. What is it about these balls that has got the European compost industry so excited?

According to Oscar Casas, Professor of Electronic Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) in Barcelona, Spain, “First of all we are working on a very novel method of measuring moisture using low frequency radio signals between two or more small and independent sensor-‘balls’. Moreover these sensor-balls can run on little power and by housing them in a highly durable casing to protect the sensors for the harsh composting environment we can then distribute them directly in the waste.”

The readings from the sensor balls in the compost pile will be sent over an autonomous mesh wireless sensor network to a standard PC or laptop, or to an existing compost management system, so composters will know if they need add more water or adjust temperature.

But what if one the COMPO-BALLs breaks down? According to Dr. Jan Wedekind, Project Manager at Innovació i Recerca Industrial i Sostenible (IRIS), a young research centre based in Spain this is coordinating the COMPO-BALL project and leading the work involved in the development of the mesh-network: “Mesh networks are self-healing. In pretty much the same way as the Internet doesn’t break down if one connection fails, COMPO-BALL will still continue to work if one or even several sensor-balls should fail.”

UPC and IRIS are joined by the team of Professor Pedro Ramos of the Instituto Superior Técnico (IST) in Lisbon, Portugal’s largest and most reputed school of Engineering, Science and Technology. “We will develop the battery system needed to keep the sensor-balls running during the entire composting process,“ Professor Ramos describes. “As we don’t want to have to open the sensor-balls to replace a battery or connect several dozen sensor-balls manually to a charger, we will simply place the balls on a plate so that they can automatically charge by magnetic induction – in much the same was as a modern electric toothbrush,” says Professor Ramos.

This €2 million project is being supported by the European Commission and represents a dynamic industry-research partnership, bringing together composting associations from across Europe with a capacity to produce over 80 Million tonnes of compost/ per year, technology suppliers, public agencies and research performers. Dr. Wedekind emphasizes how an affordable, easy to use and robust system for monitoring the composting process would boost the competitiveness of the European composting and farming industries. ”Once the COMPO-BALLs make their way on to the market, they will make it easier for composters and farmers to comply with stringent regulations and end-user requirements, as well as increase their profitability by equipping them to producing compost which is more stable and of a consistently higher quality.” These are all plusses for reducing the burden on our European waste streams, which spells good news for all of us.

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