Garbage to Gasoline, Waste to Wattage?

Dean Sigler Sustainable Aviation Leave a Comment

Dr. Seeley provided several links that reminded this writer of an earlier effort to convert the debris of our affluence into something other than effluent.

A Daily Press report from December 21, 2010 by Cory Nealon, showed that at least one lawmaker is aware that there is a “green” aviation industry.  “U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is spearheading a potential multibillion-dollar endeavor to make Hampton Roads a leader in the emerging field of green aviation.

“The effort, which would draw on the region’s rich history of aeronautics research, is in its initial stages of development, Warner said Tuesday.

“Preliminary plans include tapping NASA Langley Research Center and partner organizations, such as the National Institute of Aerospace and Science and Technology Corp., all of which are based in Hampton.”

The local nature of Senator Warner’s efforts is informative, considering the global nature of climate change and shrinking fossil fuel energy supply issues that must be addressed.

Kerry Reals, writing in Flight Global, forecasts the growing use of biofuels for use in commercial aviation, but explains that investment in such fuels must await certification by ASTM International (formerly American Standards for Materials and Testing).  Approval “has slipped to the first quarter of 2011,” according to the article.

 Further, “Richard Altman, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), describes 2011 as a ‘critical year’ for initial investment in production programmes aimed at scaling up feedstock availability to commercially viable levels.  Altman had been hoping an ASTM subcommittee would authorise hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ) fuel during a series of meetings in December, which would have kick-started the huge amounts of investment needed to scale up production. However, he says the work is ‘99% done’ and is confident the full ASTM committee will still be able to vote on whether to approve the fuels before the end of the first quarter, as originally planned.”

 Although a five-year agreement between the US Department of Agriculture and the Federal Aviation Administration may increase feedstock availability, Altman explains, “There is concern that the amount of agricultural crops available will be limited.  The seeds have been sown for a very close relationship between agricultural interests and aviation. This will mature even further as initiatives are announced.”

 Such fuels bring with them higher costs.  “Airbus chief Tom Enders recently [estimated] that biofuel is 25 times as expensive as normal jet fuel.  Ausilio Bauen, director of sustainable energy consultancy E4tech, says: ‘It is difficult to see the cost of biofuels at less than $100 a barrel.’”

Note that current prices for crude oil are around $90 per barrel – and certain to go up with diminishing supplies.

The high price of biofuels might seem less onerous if one considers externalities involved in getting fossil fuel gasoline into our tanks.  According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, the cost of fuel at the pump does not take into account military, environmental, or health costs attendant on continued use of oil. 

The Institute notes, “According to the National Defense Council Foundation, the economic penalties of America’s oil dependence total $297.2 to $304.9 billion annually. If reflected at the gasoline pump, these ‘hidden costs’ would raise the price of a gallon of gasoline to over $5.28. A fill-up would be over $105.”

This blog has discussed the problem finding biofuel resources that will not affect the food shortage in an ever hungrier world, though. To avoid trashing those food supplies, some have suggested turning to trash for fuel manufacturing.  One method for accomplishing this is the Fischer-Tropsch process, developed in German in 1923 for conversion of solid materials into useable fuels and byproducts.

Several developers are going forward with this process, including the state of Ohio, which will receive $10 million in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s State Energy Program.  The grant recognizes the need to find low-cost materials, such as municipal solid waste that can be converted to viable fuels, electricity, heat, or other uses. Ohio, and 10 other grant winners, will use their funds to develop and build digesters and other equipment and produce fuel that may achieve commercial success.

Biofuels Digest notes the potential outcomes for these awards.  “Collectively, the nine projects we have comparable economics for will process 275,000 tons of wet biomass per day, and will generate 51.1 million Kwh of power annually, and 203,000 MMBtus of thermal heat.

“At 12 cents per KWh and $4.25 per MMBTU for natural gas, the systems are offsetting roughly $6.1 million in power costs and $0.86 million in heating cost – total of around $7 million in offset costs for a $12 million capex (capital expenditure) investment, and undisclosed operating costs. (We’re estimating the capex, based on the requirement that each project include a 25 percent cost share from the project developers – we’ve used 25 percent, though the costs could be higher).

“On a BTU to BTU basis, the power being generated by the systems is comparable to the power available from a 1.5 million renewable diesel process, or a 2.5 million gallon ethanol process. That gives us some decent capex benchmarks for comparing the utility of waste biomass systems – the breakeven point between the digester systems and biofuel-generating systems is at the $8 per gallon capex mark for renewable diesel and around $5 per gallon for waste-to-ethanol.”

The Digest suggests that these producers are to be congratulated for their entrepreneurial spirit, even granted tough times ahead for those enterprises attempting to find a break-even point.

Several years ago, Discover Magazine’s all-time most popular article, based on reader feedback, was the seemingly miraculous discovery that leftover turkey bits could be turned to bio-diesel through a thermal reactive process.  The downside, in a plant that cooked carcasses from the turkey processing plant next door, was a hideous aroma that threatened the sanity of local residents.  Changing World Technologies filed for bankruptcy in 2009, but has managed to stay in business, and although paying more for Butterball turkey waste than it made for selling finished product, is working on creating more profitable outcomes and grander production.

In any attempt to overcome the inertia inherited from legacy technologies, new ideas must overcome their initial disadvantages to become the new rule.  Whether any of the approaches described in this article succeed in becoming the new norm will depend on economic, political, and engineering variables, and possibly a great helping of luck.

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