Green Living: Systems That Turn Waste into Fuel: What is the Global Impact?

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Green Living: Systems That Turn Waste into Fuel: What is the Global Impact?

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According to Dan Hoornweg et al. of the World Bank, by the year 2100 garbage, or solid waste, will triple its 2010 level. When anaerobic bacteria that live in landfills decompose organic waste, they produce biogas. Its major component is methane (CH4) a potent greenhouse gas that warms the planet 86 times more than carbon dioxide for a decade or two before the methane decays to CO2. A far better approach is to turn waste into fuel, a growing alternative energy source. Let’s look at the green living global impact of this approach.

The most common way to turn garbage or municipal solid waste (MSW) into fuel is to pre-treat it, then burn it, using the heat to generate electricity through high pressure steam turbines. As in most combustion power plants, the process generates emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and heavy metals that require controls like catalytic convertors to mitigate the air pollution’s global impact. Burning also releases CO2, but its impact is lessened because that greenhouse gas had been recently captured through photosynthesis; it’s not carbon that had been locked in the earth for millennia.

There are now more than 800 thermal waste-to-energy plants operating in nearly 40 green living countries. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, by 2013, there were 80 waste-to-energy plants in the United States that burned about 30 million tons of MSW and generated nearly 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, supplying enough energy to power 1.3 million U.S. households. These plants feed electrical energy to the grid and are distributed as any centralized power source.

There are other green living technologies now that can extract fuel from waste before burning it which allows for higher combustion temperatures that produce more electric power from the same amount of waste. These include gasification, which yields combustible gas like hydrogen; thermal depolymerization which can take carbon- based waste and transform it to synthetic crude oil, gas, and purified minerals; and pyrolysis which yields flammable gas, liquid pyrolysis oil, and solid charcoal.

Another green living option is to turn organic waste into fuel by using digesters that produce biogas and burning that. This process can be done on a large scale as part of a utility’s power mix. However, this process could well have more of a global impact on a small scale in the developing world.

HomeBiogas, based in Beit Yanai, Israel, has developed a bio-digester that can convert organic waste like food scraps including meat, fish, fats, oils, dairy and animal manure, into clean renewable energy. Its daily output is about 6 kilowatt-hours of energy – enough gas for three hours of cooking. The gas can also be used for lighting and heating. The unit also generates liquid crop fertilizer. The device is shipped as an easy-to-assemble kit and includes a filter to cut odors, and a chlorine filter to remove pathogens from the fertilizer produced. Originally sold for less than $1,000 a unit, the effort was crowdfunded by an Indiegogo campaign that raised nearly $200,000.

The company’s target market is environmentally conscious green living homeowners and small farmers. However, because the units need no external power, they have proven popular with those off the grid or subject to vagaries of intermittent power. Units are now deployed at the Buvundya Orphanage in Uganda, thanks to a donor; at two Bedouin Negev villages, due to a purchase by Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection; and in the Dominican Republic, thanks to that island’s Ministry of Energy and Mining.

As people committed to a sustainable lifestyle, we can cut back on solid waste generation by reducing, reusing and recycling. It’s great to know that individual homeowners now have the option of turning solid waste into fuel generation in their own backyards, a great alternative energy option. Imagine the widespread global impact if HomeBiogas digesters became as ubiquitous as TVs.

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