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Weekly Column

What a Difference a Day Makes: A father and son propose U.S. energy independence.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (114)
By Robert X. Cringely

There is a scene at the end of the movie Back to the Future in which Doc Emmett Brown returns from the far future in his time-traveling DeLorean to get Marty McFly. Before going forward in time to save Marty's family, Doc Brown stuffs with apple cores and diet soda the Mr. Fusion machine now powering his DeLorean. It's a step up from the stolen plutonium or captured lightning required earlier in the film to produce the 1.21 gigawatts of power needed for time travel. Yet as we in 2008 look at $130-per-barrel oil, there are those who argue that our energy independence can be found, just like Doc Brown's, in trash. What if they are correct?

A couple weeks ago I wrote a column about SwiftFuel, a non-petroleum gasoline substitute made from biomass and proposed as an alternative to aviation gasoline. Every column generates mail not just from skeptics, but also from enthusiasts and true believers. Among this latter group is the father-son team of Eric and Andrew Day from western Massachusetts pushing their particular version of trash-to-power, which they call the Day Cycle, after themselves. I think their ideas have merit and ought to, at the very least, provoke a lot of good thinking from this audience.

But before we get to the Day Cycle, let's consider the role in our culture of what I'm choosing to call "miracle cures." Based on the medical analogy of wonder drugs that cure easily what was previously incurable, I think this concept can be applied broadly to most areas of scientific inquiry. A miracle cure comes along, appears generally to do what is claimed -- problem solved, right?

Not usually.

It's rare that any bad news is simple and without nuance. Longtime readers will recall that I've been working for six years now trying to end Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which claimed our son Chase back in 2002. People contact me all the time with reports of a "cure" for SIDS, but I know that SIDS isn't just one condition but several lumped together under the name "SIDS." I believe most alternative energy technologies ought to be approached similarly. The Day Cycle, while having some merit, won't put Saudi Arabia out of the oil business or even put the United States directly into a state of energy self-sufficiency. The Day Cycle is just one part of a comprehensive rework of the ways we make and use energy that can have the eventual effect of making us in large part energy self-sufficient. It's just one piece of a very big puzzle.

The challenge of the Day Cycle is profound: to solve at once the problems of how to power our society and what to do with all of our garbage, all without making the world worse for the effort, which is to say without increasing the problems of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

I don't want to have a global warming debate here. For the purposes of the Day Cycle, it simply doesn't matter. If what the Days propose will get rid of our garbage, create usable fuel and power, and, by the way, doesn't cause any net increase of greenhouse gas emissions, that's good, right? Even those who don't believe in global warming (and I hear from them all) probably aren't specifically IN FAVOR of greenhouse gas emissions -- gas for the sake of gas. They just don't believe in global warming. That argument is not what we are about here.

What we ARE about here are the 251 million tons of municipal waste that we as Americans created in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the 5.1 billion barrels of oil we imported that same year, according to the Department of Energy.

Until the late 1960s most American cities burned their trash, which was highly efficient at reducing the trash volume by more than 90 percent, yielding ash that was relatively small and easy to dispose of under the prevalent rules of that time. Then came the Clean Air Act, which made burning asbestos and DDT and PCBs and various heavy metals a no-no, so we started burying our trash in landfills, which requires a lot more effort and a lot more land -- so much land that many large cities are running out of places to stash their trash. Recycling helps reduce the volume of trash, but it requires labor, costs more than it earns, and most of the stuff that could be recycled is missed. We need something better than burying our trash in landfills.

As an aside, many products that were designed in the 1960s for easy incineration are designed today for easier digestion in landfills. Disposable diapers are a good example of such a product.

Eric and Andrew Day propose going back to burning our trash, but instead of using open-air incinerators or even high-temperature Basic Oxygen furnaces, they like the idea of burning our crap in electric plasma furnaces at temperatures in excess of 15,000 degrees Celsius. Take everything that would have gone to the landfill, add to it, if you like, everything that would have been recycled, and even leave in the really bad stuff like medical waste, toxic waste, heavy metals, and radioactive waste. Grind it all up into little chunks, some of which could be in a chemical or water slurry, and pump it into the plasma furnace.

Plasma furnaces have been around for decades and are already used for disposing of medical waste in Japan. Most such furnaces are fairly small, though the Days have found one manufacturer that can make a plasma furnace capable of burning 100 tons of trash per day.

The plasma furnace, operating in a closed loop, generates a form of synthetic gas that can be burned as a fuel as well as a glasslike inert material that can be used as aggregate in concrete. That's what happens when you run your Pampers and plutonium and anthrax and last Sunday's chicken dinner through a 30,000-degree Fahrenheit flame that breaks everything down to single atoms. The manufacturer of the plasma furnace (it's in this week's links) says the syngas can be burned to generate more power than the furnace uses, making it self-sufficient. The Days go much further in their claims, but then they want to make the BIG BUCKS. They say the furnace can be optimized to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Dividing 251 million tons of municipal trash by 365 days by 100 tons per furnace says we'll need 7,000 such furnaces to burn all of America's trash. That doesn't really sound like a lot of furnaces to me, when you consider that's about how many landfills we have today and about how many municipal trash incinerators we used to have. Moving to this method of waste disposal and energy generation is a no-brainer... if it works.

There's that big "if" -- if it works. I fear the plasma furnaces will get clogged, but if they don't then the result is pretty darned amazing. Here is what the Days propose to do with that plasma furnace and the chemical plant they'll build around it. The purpose of the system is to simultaneously produce hydrogen, electricity, oxygen, biofuels/biomass, syngas, and other useful products from waste.

Now, with one of the heroic oversimplifications I am known for, I'll explain that the rest of the Day Cycle involves injecting steam into the syngas to create even more hydrogen along with lots of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can be used to grow algae, yielding both biomass and oxygen in copious amounts. The final outputs of the plant are whatever can be made from the algae (biodiesel, ethanol, or -- what the heck -- SwiftFuel). All heat is recycled, no carbon dioxide is released (that's the theory) and all that gets pumped out of the plant is some excess electricity (not sure how much of that), hydrogen, all those algae products, and of course oxygen.

Their claimed net production from each ton of municipal solid waste:

112 pounds of hydrogen
55 gallons of biodiesel
a little electricity
926 pounds of oxygen

The potential impact of all these products is significant, though not in themselves enough to eliminate the need for energy imports. I have real doubts about hydrogen-powered transportation and tend to believe that the best use for that hydrogen is simply for generating electricity at the sewage treatment plant which is, by the very nature of sewage, close to the population, and can be pumped into the electricity grid.

Multiply all these numbers by 251 million tons of solid waste and convert them, where possible, into equivalent barrels of oil and it comes down to about 2.6 billion barrels per year if all waste treatment facilities were so converted. That's half of our current oil import volume -- enough to substantially destabilize the international oil market if that's the goal.

Will this work? I don't know. But making energy from what we'd normally just transport and bury makes sense to me.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (114)

How about drilling our own oil? In Rocky Mountain shale oil we have 3 times the amount of oil as Saudi Arabia. On the outer continental shelf of the West Coast we have massive amounts of oil, along with a trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In the Gulf of Mexico we have another trillion barrels of oil lurking beneath the water. These sources have laid untapped because Congress has made it illeagal to tap them, and has blocked any new nuclear power plants that in addition to providing cheap electricity could also provide a massive amount of hydrogen. I'm not opposed to converting garbage to fuel, but couldn't we start with some options that are a little more proven??

JB | Jul 02, 2008 | 5:44PM

Yes we do need multiple solutions, if it works this is a good addition, I urge however even if it is less cost effective to continue recycling, we can't keep mining forever raw materials, we need to design products and packaging that makes the recycling process easier and recycle more.

Solar is not the answer to all, but just think if
panels were on every roof, if we had photovoltaic glass panels on high rises, if roads had tough non slip solar cells embedded into a grid imagine the power you could produce.
Yes storage of solar is a problem. Think about this, excess power during the day gets converted to hydrogen, and stored (technologies do need to keep improving here). During night hydrogen is used to drive power plant turbines to power our homes and pick up the slack. Yes we also need wind power.

It takes serious ambition from politicians, citizens and companies to make our future certain.

Some councils are doing their bit, London is making big moves, bio-mass waste power, decentralised power and heating systems and other efforts to become self sufficient. Just a shame the governments of the world seem to be almost sleeping on the job.

Deonast | Jul 03, 2008 | 7:25AM

To anyone who believes that finding and using our own oil from our own turf (the U.S.)is an obvious answer to our energy needs, it is this type of short-term thinking that gets us nowhere. How much longer are we going to be satisfied with finding only temporary solutions to such a critical problem?

While we certainly do not have all the necessary information and technology to turn trash into fuel, it is not going to help anyone by putting it off any longer. We will continue to generate garbage, and we will continue to struggle with not only finding accessible sources of oil but then affording to purchase that oil which will be shamelessly swallowed by our 13 mile per gallon SUV's.

As a professor of mine always told us: If you can dream it, someone can make it happen. It may not be in our direct line of vision at the moment, but if we embrace the potential that alternative energy sources have and work on mastering those instead of being lazy and settling for what we KNOW we cannot rely on for much longer, we will eventually figure this out-sooner than later.

HB | Jul 03, 2008 | 4:36PM