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Trash to Treasure
Sarah Rich, 17 Jan 07
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Landfills might seem like the last place on earth one might consider as a resource for renewable energy, but with the right technology, trash can be turned into ethanol and methanol in a cost-effective, efficient manner with minimal environmental impact. Landfill material has been turned in energy in the past through incineration, but while this strategy can produce usable energy, it generates significant pollution in the process.

An article in Technology Review highlights a new system originally developed by researchers at MIT and at Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs and commercialized by an enterprise called Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET) which instead uses extremely hot temperatures to vaporize trash, thus subtracting harmful emissions from the equation. This process, called plasma-based waste processing, yields a gas called "syngas" composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. IET's proprietary system has been dubbed "Plasma Enhanced Melter." According to the Tech Review piece:

In addition to processing municipal waste, the technology can be used to create ethanol out of agricultural biomass waste, providing a potentially less expensive way to make ethanol than current corn-based plants.
The new system makes syngas in two stages. In the first, waste is heated in a 1,200 °C chamber into which a small amount of oxygen is added--just enough to partially oxidize carbon and free hydrogen. In this stage, not all of the organic material is converted: some becomes a charcoal-like material. This char is then gasified when researchers pass it through arcs of plasma, using technology developed in the 1990s at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center. The remaining inorganic materials, including toxic substances, are oxidized and incorporated into a pool of molten glass, made using PNNL technology. The molten glass hardens into a material that can be used for building roads or discarded as a safe material in landfills.
The next step is a catalyst-based process for converting syngas into equal parts ethanol and methanol. Ethanol is now widely used as a fuel additive, and it can also be used as a substitute for gasoline in some vehicles. Methanol is important for producing biodiesel and is currently made from methane in natural gas.
There is enough municipal and industrial waste produced in the United States for the system to replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline used in this country, says Daniel Cohn, a cofounder of IET and a senior research scientist at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

The company intends to use the Plasma Enhanced Melter across a number of applications and to scale it to the point of offering distributed power generation. IET sees a potential economic advantage in the fact that numerous companies will pay to have waste removed directly from their facilities, and a commercial viability advantage in the fact that the system's low emissions make it likely to pass air quality permitting inspections.

So far, IET has sold commercial systems to companies in the US, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia. It's doesn't seem clear yet whether the concept will take widely, but it does appear that through a combination of intensive scientific research and a tenacious, detailed business approach, IET will become a reliable case study for how we can close the loop on our waste stream and reintroduce it as a power supply.

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Here is yet another way for kids to learn how to recycle "trash" ...

One-week Summer Camp: Sustainable Music Factory July 9-13, 2007 12:30-3:30pm
Mulgrave School West Vancouver, BC
: Cypress Lane ( Cypress Mountain exit from Upper Levels Highway , first right)

Music Workshop

Parents can respond to the GVRD's Zero-Waste initiative, by enrolling their kids from ages 7-14 at the Sustainable Music Factory workshops. Sustainability with history, art and music. With the aid of solar-charged tools, recycled materials can be artfully transformed into diatonic music instruments and used to perform stress-reducing busking-style concerts. There is a connection to art and history, too. Students will manufacture tuned musicalinstruments, made from recycled materials, using digital orchestral-tuning devices, powered by earth-friendlier, recycled batteries. After making their artistic or creative musical instruments, they will perform concerts, with flair. Solar-powered stress meters will be used before and after a concert. No previous musical knowledge is required. Kids will research the history of musical instruments. With sufficient hours attended, each student will have a complete set of instruments capable of playing human carillon concerts, and be able to lead a group.

Link to photo pages, below:

Want more info? ( 6 0 4 ) 7 3 9 - 7 7 1 7

To Register: Mulgrave School West Vancouver, BC mjones @

Location: Mulgrave School West Vancouver, BC

Contact: mjones @

Posted by: Solar Roadshow on 20 Jan 07

I was extremely disappointed to see your article called Trash into Treasure.
Articles with exactly this cute name have been written for thirty or forty years now. The implication is that garbage hauling is serious business while reuse and recycling are cutesy wutesy.
What you actually describe is only the latest in a long, long list of well funded attempts to turn an abomination (garbage collection, garbage creation, dumps) into a less visible but still just as unsustainable and wasteful system. The folks who run the world want to continue to rape the planet's resources for a one-way trip into oblivion. There is NO method, trick or clever destruction technique that can make this all right or acceptable or green. The only people who will see the treasure emerge are those in the garbage business.
The environmental movement is beset with trivial analyses, that jump at any little change even if it leaves the entire unsustainable system in place. I am sorry to say that that is what you have done here. There are analyses which are far deeper but which do not get the promotion or profligate funding that destruction gets. As soon as you see that Batelle has developed something, anything, you should realize that it is going to be harmful and unsustainable but immensely profitable to the folks who destroy the planet.
Actually, all of the so-called technology of making anything - ethanol, methanol, methane - from dumps is an outright fraud. It is a way for the garbage industry to pull the wool over the public's eyes and pretend they are the proprietors of an energy company. What the environmental community must do is to track the gigantic waste of energy which is the garbage system and compare it to the utterly trivial recapture of energy being promoted over and over, in every forum, by the garbage mafia. Unless hard questions are asked, no insight will be attained.
In my book I point out that the only way to address this problem is to redesign all industrial processes (absolutely including those that produce chemicals and radionuclides and biologicals)producing all the articles that we use as consumers, so that they can be reused over and over. This includes tracking reuse information for parts and materials using advanced information techniques (rfids, bar codes), installing extensive and supported repair facilities, paying for reuse at the time of initial sale, removing all of the subsidies for waste and dumps, establishing university departments studying reuse and redesign. There are many more essential and achievable changes that can be made, whenever people (including environmentalists) let go of the unsupported notion that garbage will always reign supreme and begin to think productively to redesign everything using new design constraints.
Paul Palmer
Author: Getting To Zero Waste

Posted by: Paul Palmer on 22 Jan 07



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