Tag Archives: environment

Turning garbage into gas

Why burn or bury garbage when you can vaporize them and turn garbage into electricity? This is the solution for landfill.

Feb 3rd 2011, Economist
Atomising trash eliminates the need to dump it, and generates useful power too

DISPOSING of household rubbish is not, at first glance, a task that looks amenable to high-tech solutions. But Hilburn Hillestad of Geoplasma, a firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, begs to differ. Burying trash—the usual way of disposing of the stuff—is old-fashioned and polluting. Instead, Geoplasma, part of a conglomerate called the Jacoby Group, proposes to tear it into its constituent atoms with electricity. It is clean. It is modern. And, what is more, it might even be profitable.

For years, some particularly toxic types of waste, such as the sludge from oil refineries, have been destroyed with artificial lightning from electric plasma torches—devices that heat matter to a temperature higher than that of the sun’s surface. Until recently this has been an expensive process, costing as much as $2,000 per tonne of waste, according to SRL Plasma, an Australian firm that has manufactured torches for 13 of the roughly two dozen plants around the world that work this way.

Now, though, costs are coming down. Moreover, it has occurred to people such as Dr Hillestad that the process could be used to generate power as well as consuming it. Appropriately tweaked, the destruction of organic materials (including paper and plastics) by plasma torches produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas. That, in turn, can be burned to generate electricity. Add in the value of the tipping fees that do not have to be paid if rubbish is simply vaporised, plus the fact that energy prices in general are rising, and plasma torches start to look like a plausible alternative to burial.
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The technology has got better, too. The core of a plasma torch is a pair of electrodes, usually made from a nickel-based alloy. A current arcs between them and turns the surrounding air into a plasma by stripping electrons from their parent atoms. Waste (chopped up into small pieces if it is solid) is fed into this plasma. The heat and electric charges of the plasma break the chemical bonds in the waste, vaporising it. Then, if the mix of waste is correct, the carbon and oxygen atoms involved recombine to form carbon monoxide and the hydrogen atoms link up into diatomic hydrogen molecules. Both of these are fuels (they burn in air to form carbon dioxide and water, respectively). Metals and other inorganic materials that do not turn into gas fall to the bottom of the chamber as molten slag. Once it has cooled, this slag can be used to make bricks or to pave roads.

Electric arcs are a harsh environment to operate in, and early plasma torches were not noted for reliability. These days, though, the quality of the nickel alloys has improved so that the torches work continuously. On top of that, developments in a field called computational fluid dynamics allow the rubbish going into the process to be mixed in a way that produces the most syngas for the least input of electricity.

The first rubbish-to-syngas plants were built almost a decade ago, in Japan—where land scarcity means tipping fees are particularly high. Now the idea is moving elsewhere. This year Geoplasma plans to start constructing a plant costing $120m in St Lucie County, Florida. It will be fed with waste from local households and should create enough syngas to make electricity for more than 20,000 homes. The company reckons it can make enough money from the project to service the debt incurred in constructing the plant and still provide a profit from the beginning.

Nor is Geoplasma alone. More than three dozen other American firms are proposing plasma-torch syngas plants, according to Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, a waste consultancy based in Fairfax, Virginia. Demand is so great that the Westinghouse Plasma Corporation, an American manufacturer of plasma torches, is able to hire out its test facility in Madison, Pennsylvania, for $150,000 a day.

Syngas can also be converted into other things. The “syn” is short for “synthesis” and syngas was once an important industrial raw material. The rise of the petrochemical industry has rather eclipsed it, but it may become important again. One novel proposal, by Coskata, a firm based in Warrenville, Illinois, is to ferment it into ethanol, for use as vehicle fuel. At the moment Coskata uses a plasma torch to make syngas from waste wood and wood-pulp, but modifying the apparatus to take household waste should not be too hard.

Even if efforts to convert such waste into syngas fail, existing plants that use plasma torches to destroy more hazardous material could be modified to take advantage of the idea. The Beijing Victex Environmental Science and Technology Development Company, for example, uses the torches to destroy sludge from Chinese oil refineries. According to Fiona Qian, the firm’s deputy manager, the high cost of doing this means some refineries are still dumping toxic waste in landfills. Stopping that sort of thing by bringing the price down would be a good thing by itself.

Maria Cantwell and the politics of global warming

The cap-and-dividend plan to control carbon emission and fight global warming seems to be the best and fairest among all approaches. Auction off the thing in conflict to the highest bidder, then divide the earning among all citizens. It would be even better if we can extend the cap-and-dividend approach to solve all other social conflicts.

Continue reading Maria Cantwell and the politics of global warming

How green is your pet?

A dog’s eco-footprint equals to two gas hungry SUVs. Maybe the environmentalist should stop protesting against the car drivers, they should protest against the pet owners. If we raise carbon tax at the gas pump to help fighting the climate change, should we also impose some kind of tax to discourage people owning pets?

Continue reading How green is your pet?

Biofuels Aren’t Really Green

We should not worry too much about environmental problems. At the end of the day, it all about energy. According to estimate, we only to cover 6% of land on Earth with solar panels to give enough energy to let everyone a life like the Americans. The world has 14% of land is desert, so we just need to cover all the desert of Earth with solar panels to solve our environmental problems. Those desert land are useless anyways.

Continue reading Biofuels Aren’t Really Green

Whistler in trouble

This year, February is very warm and dry. Whistler is missing at least 1 meter of snow fall compare to February of last year. The snow condition of last few weeks is so bad that even a hardcore skier like me don’t want to go skiing. Finally, the weather is getting better and we got a 80cm of new snow this week, so we have to go skiing this weekend. The Sea-to-Sky highway is busier than usual this morning. The pit-stop, McDonald’s wash room, in Squamish has long line up. I bet many skiers are hungry for ski over the past few weeks just like me. When we arrived at the Creek side, I never seen the parking lot this full. I have to park at P3 instead my usual spot at P1 right next to the elevator.

The line to take the gondola up the mountain is quite long, we waited almost 20 minutes. I thought the mountain must be very busy today and estimated I could make only 6 runs, 3 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. To my surprise, when we are up in the mountain, the runs are empty and there is no line up on chair lift. The parking lot and the Creek side gondola is the only bottle neck. We end up ski 11 runs in a day. Fresh snow, sunny day, empty runs, what a perfect day for ski.

Judging form the lack of crowds on the mountain, Whistler’s business is pretty bad this year. It must suffer a lot from the financial melt down and lost most of the lucrative US skiers. Creek side is a smaller base compare to the Whistler Village. It’s free underground parking is a little secret of local folks who go to Whistler for day trip. The line up at the Creek side gondola are people like us, budget skiers who won’t spend anything other lift ticket and lunch on the mountain. For those who has the stocks of Intrawest, Whistler’s holding company, should look at this sign and sell the stock as soon as possible. I think Intrawest will have a huge loss this year.

Oh! Did I also mention they just open a brand new peak 2 peak gondola connection Whistler and Blackcomb? The gondola is a technical marvel, the longest suspension cable car in the world, but it’s a huge marketing flop. It suppose to cost $10 a ride for stand alone sight seeing ticket. I ride the gondola 3 times since it opened and I never have to line up. I don’t think they can ever recoup the investment of the gondola. It’s just another white elephant for the 2010 Winter Olympic.

Recycling 101

Today my company has a presentation on recycling from our recycling company.  It’s part customer education and part customer relationship.  I learned many interesting fact about recycling, not just for environmental protection but also understand recycling as a business.  I won a green company logo hat for asking the best question!

I always complain recycling is too much work, you have sort the bottoms and paper into different recycling bin.  It is easier to throw them into the garbage.  It turns out in some cities, they already have single stream recycling.  People put everything recyclable into the blue box, the recycling company will use machine to sort out different material.  The recycling rate goes up a lot because it is much more convenient.  A realistic goal is recycle over 70% of domestic waste.  Almost every garbage we produce is recyclable, maybe except baby diapers and Styrofoam cups.   No one want to recycle baby diapers is obviously.  Styrofoam cup is non biodegradable and it’s too light, so it does not justify the recycling cost.

Well, actually for those who just throw away things to the garbage should not feel too guilty for our deeds.  The garbage goes to landfill, but that’s not the end of the story.  The guy from recycling company estimate within the next 50 years, technology will be available to recycle materials from old landfill.  Old landfill will turns into a material gold mine.  Therefore, don’t burn the garbage, just dump them to the landfill and wait for the time to come.

I am the one in the company use most paper because I like read a hard copy of all my documents and I am too lazy to wash my own coffee mug.  It turns out I am not very environmental unfriendly after all.  Paper is a very recyclable product.  A printer paper can recycle almost 100% over 20 times.  Used paper can made into cardboard boxes.  The yellower the cardboard box is, the more time the fiber is recycled.  At the end of the life time, the paper fiber is all broken up and degrade into residues that goes to landfill.  Since paper fiber is very biodegradable, it decompose fairly soon and does not harm the environment.  Paper cup is 100% recyclable as long as they go back to the green box.

I asked the best question in the presentation.  The presenter talked about it is hard to find site to build recycling facilities, because no one want to built a garbage dump at their backyard.  I asked why don’t we outsource recycling to third world countries?  Ship over the garbage and let them do the dirty work and ship us back the clean recycled material.  Actually they are already doing it but China is tightening the law and forbid the import untreated garbage.  I commented that we should go to poorer countries in Africa.  Other than foreign issues, there are political reason for the government not to outsource recycling.  Recycling create lots of jobs and it’s a big business.  Although they are garbage jobs, but the government don’t want to upset the unions by moving the jobs overseas.  My friends are ealous of me getting the hat and said it is unfair for the most un-environmental person in the company to get the eco-friendly hat!

Drive slow, save gas, save $$

The gas price is reaching record high of $1.50 per liter this summer.  The government is making it even worse by introducing a 2 cents carbon tax on gas.  Every time I fill up my car, I feel like there is a vacuum cleaner sucking dry my wallet.  Taking the public transport is not an option, since my time cost is still much higher than the cost of gas needed to drive to work.  However there is a way to save at least 10% of fuel expensive.  It is changing your driving habit.

The idea is very simple.  Drive slow, save gas.  If you drive fast, you have to brake a lot for traffic lights, making turns or exiting the highway.  When you accelerate the car, you build up momentum.  When you slow down, the momentum decrease.  The gas spent on accelerating the car is wasted if the momentum is not used to move the car forward.  You don’t want to waste any gas on the brake.  I started practicing the new driving habit almost 2 weeks and it really works.  My gas mileage went up from 11.7L / 100km to 10.2 / 100km.  I can save at least $20 per month simply by driving slowly.  Although I say to drive slower, the time difference is insufficient.  The lost of average speed is not noticeable.  When you drive fast and brake fast, you just spend more time waiting in front of the traffic light.

Carbon tax and rebate

The BC liberal government is going to add a 2 cent carbon tax to all fuel starting July 1.  At the same time, we will get a $100 cash rebate from the government in the name of climate action division.  The idea is you can spent the money to lower your carbon footprint.  However with the gas price reaching record hight, I guess I will just simply spend my rebate to fill up my gas tank before the new tax becomes effective.  The government may seem generous on rebate, but the money actually come from my pocket.  In a long run, we still have to pay more tax, which is bad.

I don’t see any way we can cut our consumption on oil.  Only those who are too naive or stupid will think public transit can replace automobile as a mean of transportation.  Time is also money.  The time I wasted stuck in a bus is much more than the money I have to spent on gas.  Taking public transport doesn’t make any sense unless your home and destination is right next to a Skytrain station.  Maybe the only solution is to invent some new source of energy to power our cars.