Question Your World: Can Tofu Be Used as Fuel?

Posted: May 31, 2017

The global energy dialogue is very important. There are many variables in the quest to provide sustainable power in the future to an ever growing population on our planet. Different environments provide different opportunities for new ideas based on history, culture, and resources. Scientists in Indonesia have been looking at fuel alternatives including the use of tofu. Can tofu really be used as fuel? 

No one knows the exact date that humans and tofu began their relationship together, but the earliest evidence of our tofu consumption dates back to 960 AD. The earliest mentions of tofu can be found in ancient Chinese scripts. A long time has passed since then and currently tofu is a pretty commonly used ingredient in the world’s diet. In fact, nearly half of the soy beans grown worldwide are produced right here in the United States. Humanity is deeply tied to this bean curd treat, but what else can it do? 

Scientists working in the small villages of Indonesia have found a pretty interesting way to clean up the environment, provide clean energy, and increase crop yield simply by being more mindful of tofu production waste. It takes about 8 gallons of water to make 2 pounds of tofu. Considering the fact that tofu is one of the most popular foods in that region, it comes as no surprise that lots of water is devoted to the production of this soft fluffy treat. For the most part, the water waste from tofu production has simply been discarded. This adds to the environmental impact and creates a nasty odor in the region as well. 

Recently, however, scientists have been adding a special bacteria to the water waste from tofu production to make bio-gas fuel for the residents of the area.This mixture of tofu water waste and bacteria is pumped back into homes to provide clean energy. In fact, this has been so popular that there is now a waiting list for the government to make this tofu fuel more available. The goal is to provide a quarter of Indonesia’s energy from renewable sources by 2025. 

But wait, there’s more. Not only is this tofu power helping bring affordable clean energy to the homes of Indonesians, but it’s also helping clean up the environment. Previously most of the water waste from tofu production was simply washed out into the river systems there. The air and water quality were impacted as thousands of Indonesians would make and discard tofu-related wastes. This new process has helped clean up the natural environment and has also seen the land produce higher yields of rice crops. 

Currently there are 17,000 islands and nearly 250 million people living in Indonesia. Transportation of fuel from island to island is very expensive and the nation is already facing some of the highest pollution levels on Earth. Ideas like this could be a total game changer for alternative energy options and would serve as an example of how developing nations could lead the next energy revolution. If this idea catches on, it could also be a major game changer for our global pollution and energy situation. Indonesia is currently working on increasing their supply of equipment needed to facilitate this green energy. This vegan energy alternative option is definitely food for thought. 

Produced by Science Museum of Virginia under award # NA15SEC0080009 from the Environmental Literacy Grant (ELG) program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), US Department of Commerce.  Statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the museum and do not necessarily reflect views of NOAA or US Department of Commerce. Funded in part by Virginia Environmental Endowment.