Inventing sustainable solutions to food waste

Students from around state collaborate on ideas at 3-day hackathon

November 2, 2021

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, between 30% and 40% of America’s food supply goes to waste. That waste corresponds to more than 130 billion pounds of food in landfills that could have helped feed families in need. Finding ways to reduce waste could also redirect the water, energy and labor used to produce food for other purposes that benefit society.

Seeking solutions to consumer food-waste issues was the inspiration for the most recent Devils Invent, a three-day design challenge, in which students from Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University, the University of Arizona and Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine converged to conceptualize innovative, sustainable health solutions. four students at the Devils Invent: Sustainable Health Solutions working around a table At Devils Invent: Sustainable Health Solutions, a three-day design challenge held on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, teams of students worked together over three days to develop ideas to reduce food waste, improve community health and increase sustainability. Photo courtesy of Melissa Stine Download Full Image

The weekend-long challenge was a collaborative event hosted jointly by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, College of Health Solutions and Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and held at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix.

Participation ranged from new students in their first semester to graduate students working on doctoral degrees. Their solutions incorporated a variety of ideas to reduce food waste, improve community health and increase sustainability.

“This was our first in-person event in over a year, and the students’ excitement was palpable,” says Anthony Kuhn, Fulton Schools lecturer and director of Devils Invent. “I think the diversity in majors between all our winning teams’ members shows that the appetite to solve real problems is in full swing.” 

Devils Invent: Sustainable Health Solutions saw students battling for scholarship prize money donated by Kroger/Fry’s and WeCare Denali.

Waste watchers

The top prize of $5,000 went to the FORWAA team and its food scanner idea to help identify edible food before it is wasted.

“We started by identifying the many problems with food waste,” says Andrew Deros, a mechanical engineering senior in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the seven Fulton Schools, and a junior industrial design student in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “There are a lot, but we decided to focus on the home. We found that food was often wasted because it was forgotten. It also gets thrown out because people assume brown food is not nutritious when in reality it is.”

The team came up with several ideas but landed on designing an app to create reminders about expiring food and a food scanner to detect whether food has spoiled and should no longer be eaten.

“We wanted to create a digitalized way that customers can keep track of how long their fruits and vegetables are healthy and edible,” says Rishik Kolli, a computer science sophomore.

The team found they could potentially keep track of when food goes bad based on when certain color patterns start showing up, so they created a general prototype of an RGB scanner.

“We know that we can further develop our product through deep-learning algorithms that get better and better by comparing more and more pictures of good and bad fruits,” Kolli says.

Deros says he plans to take the project ideas for further development at ASU’s Luminosity Lab, where he is currently working on other sustainability projects.

“The scanner is a natural fit for that environment, and I’m excited to see it developed,” Deros says.

The FORWAA team (from left: Oskar Kozieja, mechanical engineering sophomore; Aslit Castro, ASU nursing student; Fatima Aguayo Lopez, ASU community health student; Will Noll, biomedical engineering sophomore; Andrew Deros, mechanical engineering senior and industrial design junior; and Rishik Kolli, computer science sophomore) came up with the idea to create an app to send reminders about expiring food and a food scanner to detect whether food has spoiled and should no longer be eaten. Photo courtesy of Melissa Stine

Sustainable safekeeping

The $3,000 second-place award went to the Healthy DAAY team for their solution to provide care to aging people who remain in their homes. The team proposed utilizing Promotores, a program of community health workers, to address both food waste and climate change by repurposing food to reduce waste.

“Our project focused on the integration and mobilization of the Promotores into our communities because even though community health workers have a long history, these volunteers are new to many organizations,” says Yana Alexander, a third-year Doctor of Nurse Practice, or DNP, student in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

The Healthy DAAY team consisted of four third-year DNP students who have already spoken to their graduate faculty members about pursuing the project further beyond this event.

“While we are currently unable to undertake the next stage of development, the amount of research we conducted for this project may end up being a legacy project for other DNP students,” Alexander says.

One course in the DNP program requires students to attend events, webinars, service projects and other events throughout the semester. Students are encouraged to participate in events that help shape their DNP project or future practice.

“When presented with information on Devils Invent, it sounded like a fun and interesting way to gain hours toward the course,” says Amber Allen, one of the third-year DNP students on the team. “Once there, I really got excited about the prospect of combining the talents of different professions and personal experiences to brainstorm potentially sustainable health solutions. The energy was infectious, and it made me want to contribute something real and beneficial.”

Combustible and compostable

The $2,000 third-place prize went to the SmartComp team for their idea of creating an anaerobic compost system that takes food waste and uses it to create clean energy in the form of biogas. The idea conserves scraps to be used for composting and vertical farming.

“The system would be about the size of a dumpster so it could essentially be moved around and kept behind a restaurant,” says mechanical engineering graduate student Vishal Venkatesh. “This would not only decentralize the whole process, but the biogas produced can connect to the gas line of the restaurant kitchen and the digestate can be used in vertical farming or in nearby farms.”

A team named EAU, formed by three students from Grand Canyon University, won $1,000 in fourth place.

Engaging in innovation

Some students had participated in past Devils Invent challenges while others were being exposed to the multi-day, hackathon-style event for the first time.

“It is very different from anything I have ever done,” says first-year nursing student Kira Binstock, a member of the SmartComp team. “I was pretty nervous going into it, but I am glad I did it. I met some great people, I learned about the innovation process and I learned what amazing things people can come up with when they collaborate.”

Abdullah Madi, a first-year health sciences major in the College of Health Solutions, says, “It was such an experience. Combining the ingenuity of both engineering and health students to create world-level solutions in a limited time” made an impression on the first-time competitor and SmartComp team member.

While some students were not as familiar with sustainable health solutions, their prior experience participating in Devils Invent gave them confidence and a keen understanding of the innovation process.

“This is my second time participating in Devils Invent, and I have really enjoyed the competition process,” says mechanical engineering sophomore Oskar Kozieja, a member of the FORWAA team. “I have met a lot of new people with different majors and fascinating backgrounds. It helped me see all of the available opportunities that ASU has to offer if you take the initiative to get involved.”

The next Devils Invent will tackle the challenge of product shipping and handling. Teams will create solutions to the difficulties of moving cargo over land, through the air or across the seas. Devils Invent: Land, Air, and Sea takes place Friday, Nov. 19–Sunday, Nov. 21, at the Engineering Center eSpaces on ASU’s Tempe campus.

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU partners with Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building to explore multiple ‘FUTURES’

November 2, 2021

We usually think of museums as repositories for the past, from Edison’s lightbulb and Bell’s telephone to the first Apollo rockets — but what happens when a museum explores the future? This is the question animating “FUTURES,” a brand-new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, debuting this fall in honor of the 175th anniversary of America’s museum.

As part of this nine-month, building-wide exploration of the future, curators from Smithsonian invited Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to collaborate with Smithsonian research teams and envision possible future timelines informed by the inquiries, investigations and field research happening today at Smithsonian museums and laboratories all around the world. This portion of the overall exhibit is called “Future Visions 2071.” A collection of sci-fi-looking posters "Future Visions 2071," eight posters by artist Brian Miller, inspired by Smithsonian research. Download Full Image

“Museums are used to looking back into history,” said curator Glenn Adamson, “but gazing into the future is a lot more unusual. In this project, we were able to pair historians and scientists with specialists in imagining tomorrow — it was the perfect way to mark the 175th anniversary of the Smithsonian, which has always been an engine of the future.”     

Throughout the winter and spring of 2021, the Center for Science and the Imagination convened eight teams of scholars and experts from Smithsonian museums and research centers, including the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to explore potential futures for their institutions, their areas of research and the communities they serve.

These discussions were bolstered by queries, prompts and speculative leaps from award-winning artist Brian Miller, and acclaimed science fiction writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby, who brought these “future visions” to life through forward-looking exhibition posters and flash fiction stories — full narratives, all fewer than 2,000 words — set in the year 2071.

“Futures are not determined by just one decision-maker. Instead they’re built on countless cycles of deliberation, adaptation and inspiration drawn from multiple sources,” said Ruth Wylie, assistant director at the Center for Science and the Imagination. “The workshops distilled this process, activating a collaborative imagination between scientists, museum staff and the artists to envision the next 50 years of innovation and discovery.”

“Future Visions 2071” represents the wide array of contemporary, compelling scholarship happening at the Smithsonian’s various units — work that grapples with some of the most challenging topics on our shared horizon, including the ethics of asteroid mining and other off-world extraction, voting rights amid shifting identities and social arrangements, and how current studies on tropical ecosystems may inform how we live on an increasingly warming planet.

Following in the Smithsonian’s rich tradition of curation and interpretation, this new collection of stories and art brings human-centered narratives to the technical research and groundbreaking discoveries shaping our world, providing patrons firsthand experience with possible futures and their many complexities, rather than a staid recitation of the facts and theories that underpin them. All eight posters and their corresponding stories will be on display at the Arts and Industries Building when “FUTURES” debuts on Nov. 20.

This project marks another successful collaboration in future visioning from the Center for Science and the Imagination, which has previously been called on by NASA, Google, the World Bank and others to use the methods of speculative fiction, scenario planning and worldbuilding as a way to engage the public in critical conversations about science, technology, society and the future.

For Ashby, a strategic foresight consultant and longtime Center for Science and the Imagination collaborator, the stakes were even higher.

“Writing for this exhibition challenged me to be fearlessly hopeful, in a way that I’m usually not,” she said. “But when I put myself in the shoes of the museum’s visitors, I realized I was telling stories for the whole of America — including people who are very different from me, who have different views and experiences from mine and who might not be familiar with my genre. I thought about a grandparent reading a story to their grandchild. I thought about the conversations that might arise from there. When I thought of it that way, I was able to focus more intently on the hopes multiple generations might share.”

Onyebuchi echoed that optimistic reaction.

“Working with and listening to these researchers and curators, these custodians not just of history but also of curiosity itself, vastly expanded my ideas of the possible,” he said. “There is crisis at work but also hope. That is what I felt whenever I left these conversations to work on these stories: hope.”

Stories and art from “Future Visions 2071” are available now on Future Tense, a partnership with Slate, New America and ASU. To celebrate the launch, Future Tense will host a free online panel conversation between Miller, Ashby and Onyebuchi, moderated by Adamson and Wylie, at noon EST, Tuesday, Nov. 9. 

The overall exhibit “FUTURES” will be open to the public from Nov. 20–July 6 at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building in Washington, D.C. For more information, the public can visit