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With Digesto, your trash is treasure!

May 5 2021 | Laura Martinez

Can you explain anaerobic digestion? No worries! The Montréal Science Centre, in collaboration with Énergir, has done it for you with a colourful robot that digests your waste to create energy in the form of gas. Here's the story of DIGESTO, the gas-releasing robot.

“DIGESTO eats a corncob, an apple core and poo, and that button makes farts,” giggles four-and-a-half year old Jeanne. This is the second time that Jeanne has interacted with the Science Centre's new 3D module. That's the advantage of being the daughter of Elisabeth Monast Moreau, one of the project managers at the Montréal Science Centre.

Sticking her head into the concave opening that lets you see DIGESTO's innards, Jeanne exclaims: “There are microbes in its belly! See, there are lots of microbes. You can watch them here." An army of microorganisms, looking like something out of a comic strip, are busily decomposing organic matter and producing precious farts that correspond to methane-rich biogas, as well as soft poo with the fancy name “digestate”, a super fertilizer for crops. Then Jeanne presses the “fart” button for the hundredth time.

A strong team   

In a close collaboration between the Montréal Science Centre and its partner Énergir– a Quebec company involved in the development of renewable natural gas, nearly twenty people were involved in taking DIGESTO from an idea to an installation. "It was a great example of collaboration and planning," says Marie-Joëlle Lainé, an Énergir mechanical engineer whose role it was to validate the project's scientific content in conjunction with the Science Centre team.

From the start, the two organizations shared a common objective: to educate citizens about the transformation of organic waste into energy. Aided by Judith Portier, among others from the firm Design, they worked together for several months, culminating in the birth of DIGESTO in September 2020.

“The Science Centre's challenge and mission is to make something extremely complicated (such as anaerobic digestion) accessible to everyone, even the very young,” explains the Montréal Science Centre development and realisation project manager. Their idea was to create a character who would be fed on organic waste – rest assured it's not real waste! –, and whose belly would be visible on the inside, teeming with playfully depicted bacteria.

“Comparing a biodigester to a stomach is a smart idea because that's exactly what it is," says Nathalie Maurer, head of branding and corporate agreements at Énergir, who is very enthusiastic about the project.

Photo credit: Laura Martinez

A funny robot with an important message

“People think of residual materials as waste: it's smelly; it attracts bugs. […] Our objective was to show that the apple core that you toss into your brown bin has real value, a second life. It can produce energy!" says Élisabeth Monast Moreau.

And since this gas is derived from waste saved from the trash, we are talking about a renewable natural gas. As a bonus, the civic action of collecting your table waste like a treasure in the brown bin contributes to the fight against climate change.

Jeanne, who has been playing with the robot for a good quarter of an hour, heads for the end of the process. "Then the microbes' farts go into pipes," she explains to me, actively turning the gas valve that is depicted as fueling a natural gas stove, or, by burning, heating water in a shower or radiators. Although this mini anaerobic digestion plant was designed for children aged 8-12, it is clear that this entertaining robot will appeal to younger and older visitors as well.

Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, DIGESTO has not seen many people since its installation in the lobby of the Montréal Science Centre. But the good news is that the Science Centre is scheduled to reopen soon. Are you ready to come and test Jeanne's favourite button? It's a gas!

Laura Martinez
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Text and images by Laura Martinez

Laura’s love of science is matched only by her love for adventure. She is a PhD in biology who spent more than ten years studying seabeds. She’s also the expert on whale sunburns! Since 2017, she has been devoted to Arctic research, science journalism, and projects aimed at popularizing science. Keep an eye out for her next blog posts!