Hipster Gold is Biogas? How Tofu is Revolutionizing Indonesia's Energy Market

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tofu wastewater turns into biogas

Tofu, the pressed cake made of soybeans, is indeed the vegan hipster currency of choice these days, especially when it’s atop a bed of quinoa, kale, and hemp seeds, or being washed down with a bottle of bubbly kombucha—but it’s also been a staple food in countries like Indonesia, Japan, and China for generations. And now, it’s becoming a sustainable biogas and a source of energy for some of those communities, too.

On the massive Indonesian island of Java, 150 tofu businesses in the Kalisari village are using tofu wastewater to power their homes, reducing the reliance on and costs of purchasing gas or wood.

"The advantages are huge, because we produce the gas with waste," Waroh, a tofu produce in Indonesia, told AFP.

Tofu, while a nutrient-dense and versatile staple that’s easy and inexpensive to make, requires a significant amount of water to produce—about eight gallons for every two pounds of tofu. The water is treated with acetic acid or other clumping agents that help the cakes to bind. But that acidic wastewater isn’t fit for drinking—or much else—except, it turns out, becoming an inexpensive and efficient biofuel.

Treating the tofu wastewater with bacteria helps turn it into a viable biogas, and that gas, reports AFP, is “three times cheaper for villagers than to purchase refillable LPG tanks.”

Not only is tofu biogas cheaper than the fossil fuel alternatives, it’s more readily available. Many times villagers have to wait weeks for a gas refill to arrive. "One month you had it, another one you didn't,” Waroh said. “Thanks to this biogas, things are a lot easier for people here."

One of the most densely populated regions of the world, renewable energy is not at the forefront of Indonesia’s emergent energy market, despite the country’s commitments to curb greenhouse gases. Recent pledges by Indonesia’s government to cut greenhouse gas emissions include plans to derive 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2025.

And while there are bigger plans in the works, including solar and wind, it looks like that plan is going to include tofu—particularly among the small villages and less-accessible islands in the archipelago. Kalisari’s success is already drawing attention from other villages. The project is becoming a model program and researchers are looking at other crops, like tapioca, that could become potential sources of energy as well.

Converting tofu wastewater into energy also helps to reduce pollution. The water was once pumped into rivers, which not only contaminated the waterways, but also impacted nearby rice fields, damaging another staple crop for the region. Now that the tofu water is being turned into biogas, rice yields are up and river water is clearer.

"There are thousands and thousands of tofu producers throughout the country,” Robert de Groot, program development manager of Hivos, the Dutch company setting up biogas programs across the region, told AFP. “There's a lot of potential there."

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tofu image via Shutterstock

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