Eco-Living Magazine

Trash to Volts: For Real, This Time?

Posted on the 23 August 2013 by 2ndgreenrevolution @2ndgreenrev

There’s seems to always be a catch when it comes to clean energy technology.  It costs too much, it has hidden environmental impacts, it produces too little energy, it isn’t scalable. The list goes on. However, just because there are technical obstacles doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. While most of us can’t afford to dump millions into new or unproven technologies, the government can. That’s why technology-hungry agencies like the Department of Defense (DOD) are great places to fund, test, and incubate new ideas.

While the DOD funds innumerable trial projects at any given time, some look more promising than others.  In the case of Sierra Energy, the DOD is interested in its waste-to-energy system called the FastOx Pathfinder. As described in a New York Times article, the idea of converting trash to energy is undeniably neat and alluring. But that’s all theory. In the real world, it’s surely more complicated than that, right?

Well, yes and no. On one hand, the technology is quite simple. Essentially, the system, which is about the size of a shower stall, gasifies waste inside a modified blast furnace (these have been around for more than a century). The resulting gas, or syngas, is made up of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. It can be burned to generate electricity, or converted into ethanol or diesel fuel. Here’s a quick video on how it works.

On the other hand, FastOx must be able to cope with the inherent inconsistency of waste streams if it is to be commercially viable. Without that, Mr. Hart indicated, nobody cares. Essentially, the system must be able to produce electricity no matter the input, whether it is trash made of steel, wood, or even discarded electronics. This problem has achilles heel of every such unit.

While not an absolutely clean process, the system has shown promising results at the DOD’s testing facility. After four hours of gasifying one ton of waste, FastOx Pathfinder produced enough electricity to power an average U.S. home for 45 days. Best of all, the gasification process produced electricity with one-third the emissions from coal, and doesn’t emit the noxious pollutants you would get from burning trash. This technology would not only help military bases operate cleaner, but reduce the threat of interrupted fuel supply.

With any “promising” technology, especially related to energy, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. FastOx is, after all, in the demonstration phase. Still, someone has to search for the Holy Grail.

Image by Matthias Mueller “trendscout” on Flickr

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