Green Innovation

December 14th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Green Innovation

In the past century the global population has tripled, and is expected to increase by half again, to 9 billion people, by 2050. Both food and fossil fuel consumption is projected to double as a result. Without cleaner sources of energy, it’s pretty safe to assume that we will be an untenable situation.  Right now in the U. S., it seems like we are putting a lot of eggs in the basket of ethanol made from corn. For so many reasons this is a pretty poor choice. For starters, because of how corn is produced, only about 20% of each gallon is “new” energy, because it takes a lot of fossil fuels to produce it: diesel for the tractors, petroleum based fertilizers, and fuel to run the refineries that convert the corn to ethanol. Another reason why corn ethanol falls short is the impact it has corn prices, raising the cost of many foods that are typically considered affordable to a price that commands a second glance. Studies have also shown that the ethanol from corn does increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the increase is only about 15% less than the increase caused by the equivalent amount of gasoline.

So, what do we do? Well, the Daily Green has come up with several different alternative fuels to replace oil. They are quite innovative, certainly resourceful, and even entertaining; but in the end, they could actually work. Here are the ones that I found most interesting:

Chocolate Fuel: A team from the University of Warwick in Britain has built and is track-testing a Formula 3 race car, running on 30% biodiesel derived from chocolate waste. It turns out that anything with fat in it can be turned into diesel. Currently, the chocolate they use is waste from bad batches at Cadbury’s in nearby Birmingham.

Poopy Diapers: Probably not the smoothest transition from chocolate to soiled diapers, but . . . a Canadian company called AMEC is in the process of building a pilot plant in Quebec that will process the plastics, resins, fibers (and poop) into a mix of gas, oil and char. The company hopes to take in 180 million diapers a year — a quarter of Quebec’s output — to produce 11 million liters of diesel. Considering that diapers can take 100 years to decompose in a landfill, this seems like a very nice alternative.

Wood chips, Sawdust and Nuts: Waste walnut shells, and wood scraps are part of this biomass solution. According to the Daily Green, “Biomass gasoline won’t be much, if any, cleaner out of the tailpipe than current fuel, but when the lifecycle carbon reductions from growing the “feedstock” is taken into account, it’s a big winner.”

Turkeys: Americans eat 45 million turkeys at Thanksgiving alone. So, this begs the question – what happens to all the turkey ”innards” that are discarded? Well, in Carthage, Missouri they opened a plant that can process turkey waste (throw-a ways), including the feathers, into a fuel that could then be processed into diesel, gasoline or jet fuel. This process is known as thermo-depolymerization, and as you might imagine, since it has an ascribed name, it is well known to actually work. The big problem with this processing plant is that it stinks – very, very smelly. The processing plant would not be very popular near a residential area.

Cows: The U.N. has published that the livestock industry is responsible for 18% of global warming emissions – more than transportation worldwide. There are 1.5 billion cows worldwide, who produce a lot of methane from both belching and flatulence. An individual cow is estimated to produce between 50-130 gallons of methane every day. Methane is known to burn quite well, and therefore could be converted into fuel. This is exactly what some dairy farmers are beginning to do. According to the Daily Green, “Dairy farms such as Blue Spruce Farm in Vermont are putting their cow waste in anaerobic (no oxygen) digesters for three weeks, producing methane, and then burning it in generators to produce electricity. This “cow power” is being sold to a nearby college, and it can also be fed back into the grid. The process also generates useful fertilizer.”  By the way, grass-fed cows produce much less methane.

Coffee Grounds: Coffee contains 10-15% oil that can be refined into biofuel. A study shows that used cappuccino scraps can offset our imported oil — as much as 340 million gallons a year from the world’s 15 billion pounds of annual coffee production.

With the right combination of innovation, science, and entrepreneurship . . . I’m starting to feel hopeful.