Archive | Waste Management

Storms Dump 170 Million Gallons of Sewage into San Francisco Bay

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 31 (UPI) — The recent series of California storms dumped about 170 million gallons of partially processed sewage into the San Francisco Bay, an environmental group says.

The San Francisco Baykeeper group says this was in addition to 630,000 gallons of raw sewage the storms dumped into the bay in 47 locations, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday.

The “under-treated” 170 million gallons of sewage was discharged from three East Bay Municipal Utility District overflow plants on the bay’s east side, the newspaper reported.

Those “wet weather” plants process overflow during storms, but the facilities can get overwhelmed during big storms like the recent ones, and what goes into the bay can be raw sewage from toilets, kitchen sinks, creeks, cracked sewer lines or overflowing manhole covers.

Although mixed with rainwater, the partially treated sewage from the “wet weather” plants still contains pesticides and metals such as mercury, which can sicken people, fish and birds, the Chronicle said.

Baykeeper points to outdated infrastructure, in which pipes and processing plants leak, break or simply can’t handle the load. The group wants the city to assess its processing systems and figure out how to fix them.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

Posted in Birds, Fish, Waste Disposal, Waste Management, Wastewater & Runoff, Water Pollution0 Comments

Seattle to Increase "Garbage Power"

SEATTLE, Jan. 21 (UPI) — Seattle, which gets a small amount of electricity from its own trash, plans to increase its garbage power significantly, city officials say.

The city of 602,000 plans to outfit a second landfill to pump methane gas from refuse by 2012, adding to an existing landfill in Arlington, Ore., where Seattle’s garbage is taken by train, officials said.

The city first began getting electricity from the Arlington plant in October.

“This is part of our strategy,” City Councilman Bruce Harrell, chairman of the council’s Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “This is part of our vision.”

A network of pipes moves the methane from the tons of garbage in the Arlington landfill into a compression facility, which sends it to internal combustion engines. The engines turn generators that produce 5.7 megawatts of electricity sent up the power grid, enough to supply about 5,600 homes.

Seattle uses about 1,132 megawatts, the Seattle City Light utility averages. About 89 percent of the utility’s power comes from hydroelectric dams, 5.6 percent from nuclear energy, 3.4 percent from wind, 1.3 percent from coal and 0.5 percent from natural gas, the utility says.

The methane-extraction arrangement is part of a 20-year contract between the city and national garbage-management firm Waste Management Inc. of Houston, which built the system and charges the city about $2.5 million annually, Harrell said.

Copyright 2010 by United Press International

Posted in Biofuels & Biomass, Coal, Electricity, Hydroelectric, Natural Gas, Waste Management0 Comments

Finland to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions with Long Range Emission Goals

HELSINKI, Finland, Oct. 17 (UPI) — Finland aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 through tougher building standards and electric cars, officials said.

Government incentives and mandates will encourage Finnish residents to be more energy efficient in housing, transportation and food production, a government report on climate change said.

Under the new policy, buildings must use 60 percent less energy than they do now, cars must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 90 percent and waste management facilities must curb emissions from landfills, Helsingin Sanomat reported Saturday.

The policy means Finland will see more electric cars and the use of alternative fuels in cars with internal combustion engines, Finish climate expert Oras Tynkkynen said.

The policy represents the first time Finland has set long-term targets for emission reduction.

Copyright 2009 by United Press International

Posted in Buildings, Cars, Energy, Landfills, Pollution & Toxins, Transportation, Waste Management0 Comments

Eco Friendly Fashion

The practice of eco friendly processes has re-sparked new business prospect for Argentinan fashion, even with an unstable economy that once hindered new business relations and ideas.

Fashion maker, Baumm, has began coming up with new fashion lines that cross high end retail, fashion with eco friendly manufacturing and waste management. The company believes in still delivering a high quality product while pushing to use recycled and abandoned materials, such as vinyl, parachutes, bamboo fiber, and other types of green textiles.

The fashion made be produced with green practices in mind, but that does not mean it will be more expensive than your typically trendy apparel. The products are still priced competitively and can be considered one of the kind pieces, since the company relies on vinyl banners that companies are no longer using and wish to discard.

Read the full article on how style and sustainability work great and look great.

Posted in Consumer Products, Ideas, Humanities, & Education, Other, Waste Management0 Comments

EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research Funding Greentech Innovation

Not a direct part of the economic stimulus package, and only extended by Congress (as of March 20th) for another 60 days, a significant source of funding for primary research by startup greentech companies has been from the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research which manages the funding of the SBIR – Small Business Innovation Research program, and STTR – Small Business Technology Transfer program. Both SBIR and STTR monies are channeled through as many as 12 other federal agencies. Click here to discover the GreenTech funding opportunities within these agencies and sub-agencies.

Anyone in the GreenTech business universe ought to recognize the following R&D categories being funded by various federal agencies, i.e. the EPA, DOE, DOD and NSF to name a few. Some of these free money R&D categories may be the exact same areas of research you are about to commit to, or have been thinking – or dreaming – about doing.

Clean air – innovations to
ensure healthy air are just beginning.
(Photo: US EPA)

The 2010 EPA-SBIR Broad Area Topics are:

  • Green Building Materials and Systems
  • Innovation in Manufacturing
  • Nanotechnology
  • Greenhouse Gases
  • Drinking Water and Water Monitoring
  • Water Infrastructure
  • Air Pollution
  • Biofuels and Vehicle Emissions Reduction
  • Waste Management and Monitoring
  • Homeland Security

The 2010 NSF Broad Area Topics are:

  • Biotech and Chemical Technologies (BC)
  • Education Applications (EA)
  • Information and Communication Technologies (IC)
  • Nanotechnology
  • Advanced Materials and Manufacturing (NM)

There are specific sub-categories for each of these broad area topics.
To see if your companies R&D interests and that of our governments are aligned click into these links:

  • EPA-SBIR Program Solicitation:
  • More information is available on the EPA-SBIR web site at:
  • NSF/SBIR Program Solicitation:
  • More information is available on the NSF-SBIR web site at: http://

The closing dates for the EPA-SBIR are May 20th. This means for this funding year, applicants only have 45 days left to get that EPA-SBIR proposal in. For NSF-SBIR the close date is June 9th. Companies are eligible to apply to both of these and others, like STTR.

The NSF Phase I limits have gone up to $150,000 because of a surge of “reinvestment” monies from the Obama administration. Also, NSF allows for a maximum of 4 proposals from any one private company. As with most business endeavors, there are many “optimizing strategies” that can be applied and the federal grant money-making environment for small businesses is no exception.

Federal research “grants” are just that, grants. They are not loans, i.e., you don’t have to pay anything back. You will to do some periodic reporting and invoice the government to get your money, but that is well worth the time and effort expended to perform these grant maintenance tasks if you win an award. In many cases, if you win the money then the maintenance efforts which can be an administrative burden for small or even mid-size companies, can be paid for from grant monies you’ve won. For example, the EPA/SBIR allows for up to $4,000 of the Phase I grant winnings (won through a separate but conjoined proposal) for what is referred to as “Technical Assistance.”

Don’t be intimidated by the grant writing task. Most all SBIR type grants are written by the chief scientist or the engineer as CEO/President of small, private companies. You will not be competing with professional grant writers. That said, it is important to know there is a “style” to grant writing, and there is certain marketing or “pitching” in the grant writing space. You have to have a certain marketing sensibility in writing to the agency and program you are writing to. In this sense I suggest you check out last years winners and get a sense of who won and read their abstracts, or better yet, give the “chief investigator” at the company a phone call and ask them if they are willing to share their grant proposal. Having a winning proposal in hand is a beautiful thing. Also the agency itself can assist you in assessing the “alignment” of your research with that agencies specific funding objectives. First, do your homework before you call or write as they will remember your name and the name of your company especially if your waste their time.

These often overlooked grant programs can provide a decisive financial edge to greentech startups and greentech entrepreneurs who are looking for cash and have a “novel” GreenTech (or other) R&D idea.

Brian Hennessy provides proven expert, hands-on assistance to start-up company founders and executive management. He has worked on 12 start-ups and with 9 Founders or CEO’s of start-ups over the last 25 years.

Posted in Air Pollution, Business & Economics, Drinking Water, Education, Infrastructure, Other, Science, Space, & Technology, Waste Management1 Comment

Sustainable High Density

Modern urban centers from Manhattan to Hong Kong now boast neighborhoods that house well over 100,000 people per square mile, while providing their inhabitants an excellent quality of life. As world civilization voluntarily and inexorably urbanizes, new megacities will be built everywhere. It is estimated that within the next few decades the number of megacities on earth – defined as an urbanized area with over 10 million inhabitants – will increase from around 20 today to over 400. So what innovations being pioneered today will enable cities like this to provide a high quality of life, and how will cities of such size and density reduce their vulnerability to economic or physical disruptions?

In a way, a megacity is antithetical to the notion of being “off-grid,” yet in important ways it is the megacity that needs to be as self sufficient as possible, since having 100,000 people per square mile (20,000 per square kilometer) means that any resource that needs to be imported, stored or removed is going to have to be handled in very high volumes. Therefore energy efficiency, waste management, as well as energy and water harvesting and treatment are technologies that are extremely important to the megacity – along with smart systems to interconnect all of them. So along with energy and water efficiency, harvesting and reuse, how else can a megacity exist relatively off-grid? Equally important is the closely related question of how can a megacity experience a postive balance of payments – supporting itself economically?

Cities could become food exporters.

To explore this question beyond the usual suspects there are two evolving technologies (both are evolving, not emerging, because both have illustrious histories) that promise to transform megacities in important and very positive ways, one is high-rise agriculture, and the other is massive tunnelling systems.

It is common for the smart growth crowd to say “build up, not out,” but this misses two key points. First, of course, the smart growth advocates tend to forget that the smartest growth is unplanned. Centrally planned growth tends to actually promote sprawl, because those of us who don’t want to live in towers simply buy land and build homes on the far side of whatever “greenbelt” they manage to decree. But more on point, building up instead of out ignores building downwards as well. Some of the greatest urban gridlock ever seen has been ameliorated by tunnelling – anyone who tries to get to Logan Airport from downtown Boston during rush hour will have nothing but good things to say about the much maligned “big dig.” It’s too bad we don’t have more big digs – in the heart of urban centers we could put freeways and rail underground, and our cities could reach for the sky, and there would never be a traffic jam.

Tunnelling on a grand scale can seem mundane until you learn more about it – then you realize it is a fascinating field that is advancing at breakneck speed, incorporating new technology across multiple disciplines as fast as it becomes available. From GPS systems that allow a tunnelling machine to always know precisely where it is beneath the earth, to better cutting bits, to debris removal conveyers, to conveyers to bring forward shoring material, to worker shelter and control rooms, modern tunnelling machines can exceed a mile in length and cost billions to acquire and operate. The global leader in tunnelling systems is Herrenknecht AG. A good website that covers the world of tunnelling is

As the megacities of the future are built, tunnelling machines will play an integral part in endowing these cities with efficient transportation systems. Tunnelling underground to create utility conduits to transport water and energy will also be necessary in cities of ultra-high density. Using the volume of underground space to host much of the physical plant of megacities will make the surface areas far less congested, and far more pleasant for people. The underground systems of megacities can include large-scale water cisterns, or even enhanced geothermal power stations to extract power from the heat in the earth’s crust.

The imperative to build upwards is already a part of the new urban vision, but what about high-rise agriculture? The technology to grow food at extremely high volume indoors is already well understood – the Netherlands, for example, is a net food exporter in spite of being the most densely populated nation in Europe. But what the Dutch do using advanced hydroponics and lighting, in greenhouses that glow for miles across the reclaimed polders all year long, might instead take place on the stacked stories of a skyscraper.

One of the pioneers of high rise agriculture is Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University and the founder of Vertical Farms LLC. Most of the technology to operate a vertical farm is already here, as well as much of the infrastructure. A properly designed vertical farm imports grey water (plenty of that in a mega-city) and pumps it to the top of the building, then allowing it to trickle downwards through hydroponic media on floor after floor. With mirrors and energy efficient lighting, along with daylight, a high-rise farm would probably consume, overall, less energy and water per calories grown than a greenhouse, since heating would be far more efficient in a multi-story structure. Despommier estimates a high rise farm on one city block (30 stories, 100,000 square feet per floor) could produce enough food to meet the needs of at least 10,000 people (possible much more, read “The Vertical Farm” .pdf, 2004). Every type of produce except for grains is potentially cost competitive to land-intensive traditional agriculture.

The implications of building upwards and downwards, employing novel technologies ranging from enhanced geothermal to high-rise farming, hold forth not only the oft-wished for promise of attracting humanity’s billions off the land and into densely populated megacities, but also the promise of cities that live nearly off the grid, cities that may, despite their magnitude, require very little from the rest of the world. Cities that might actually export power and food.

Posted in Energy Efficiency, Geothermal, Homes & Buildings, Other, People, Science, Space, & Technology, Transportation, Waste Management, Water Efficiency2 Comments

Eco-Fiber: The Full Package

Most of the trash that accumulates so quickly is made up of packaging. This makes sense when every item at the grocery store, every new piece of equipment and every toy is safely encased in the cardboard boxes we have gotten so accustomed to. The Integrated Waste Management Board states that of all the solid waste that pours into landfills every year, a third is made up of packaging.

Most boxes are made from wax coated wood pulp. Unfortunately, wax boxes are non-recyclable and non-pulpable which means they go straight to the dump after being used. It is also too costly for retailers that do use boxes to separate these non-recyclable boxes from old corrugated containers so everything gets sent to the landfill.

Eco-Fiber, a San Francisco based packaging company, provides a solution. Their packaging is designed to work better than any wax-coated box, and Eco-Fiber’s products are perfectly adequate for use in a refrigerator, freezer, printer, wallet etc. Their homepage explains that “Eco-Fiber Solutions manufactures competitively priced corrugated, water resistant products that are sustainable, repulpable and recyclable. Based on tested and proven packaging technology, all Eco-Fiber designed products perform as well or better than their waxed coated counterparts. These products are suitable for use in field packaging, for refrigerated and/or freezer conditions and for multiple applications where water resistant packaging is required. Further the packaging can be laminated and is printable”

This produce tray from Eco-Fiber resists fluid
migration, has rigid construction, is easily
stackable, and can be recycled.
(Photo: Eco-Fiber Solutions)

One of Eco-Fiber’s specialty packages can even replace the popular Styrofoam cooler. Their Eco-cooler is easily put together without any glue or staples.

The item arrives flat, but once put together, this water resistant cardboard box works as well as any other cooler. In fact, it is quoted for “indefinite use”. Best of all, it is recyclable, repulpable and biodegradable.

Their other products, like the Eco-bond, is also put together without any glue or staples but still allows for some tough jobs: During the 2008 Boston International Sea Food Show, the corrugated boxes were introduced to one of the toughest markets: Fish and protein retailers require heavy-duty, leak proof and hygienic packaging. Eco-Fiber’s box didn’t just hold up to the freshly caught crab, fish, and scallops, but also the masses of ice that were slid into the boxes first. In the associated press release, CEO Robert VonFelden is quoted saying that their new box is “the answer to the increasingly untenable waste-disposal problem facing supermarkets and large retailers…and the cost is comparable and often times less than wax-based packaging. This technology is not tied to petroleum prices as is wax. Waxed corrugates will only continue climb in production and disposal costs.”

Sometimes the best part about a product really is the packaging.

Posted in Consumer Products, Fish, Landfills, Other, Packaging, Science, Space, & Technology, Waste Management1 Comment

Cellulosic Ethanol

Ethanol Pace Car
The pace car for the 2008 Indianapolis 500 ran
on E85; the race cars burned 100% ethanol fuel.

Last month, for the first time in history, the cars racing in the Indianapolis 500 were fueled by pure ethanol. This should put to rest any concerns about ethanol lacking sufficient energy density to function as a motor fuel.

While the absolute amount of energy contained in ethanol is somewhat lower than gasoline – about 76,000 BTUs per gallon for ethanol compared to about 116,000 BTUs per gallon of gasoline – ethanol has higher octane, generally speaking 110 or more vs. 90 or less, allowing ethanol to run in higher compression, higher efficiency engines. A car optimized to run on ethanol can get comparable mileage to a car optimized to run on gasoline.

There are other concerns about ethanol, for example, the notion that it takes more energy to manufacture ethanol than the energy value of the fuel itself, the suggestion that it isn’t “carbon neutral” after all, and the whopper, the accusation that ethanol production has taken food crops out of production. All of these concerns have some validity, but are shrouded in complexities that defy simple characterizations or easy conclusions. Yet that is what has happened. A few years ago, biofuel in general, and ethanol in particular, could do no wrong. Today the situation is reversed, and around the world, for the most part the powerful media and environmentalist communities have turned on biofuel.

In many respects this awakening is healthy – when mandatory carbon offset trading in the European Community was subsidizing rainforest destruction in southeast asia to make way for oil palm plantations, something was clearly out of whack. But corn ethanol in the USA has drawn the most visible criticisms. California’s Air Resources Board, struggling to implement a lower carbon fuel standard, has recently determined, perhaps correctly, that hauling tank cars by rail over the Rocky Mountains from Iowa to the west coast probably eliminates any carbon neutrality ethanol may have otherwise enjoyed. In Washington D.C., the political backlash continues to build against the subsidies corn ethanol receives, with increasing urgency due to the global food shortages that are allegedly exacerbated by dedicating so much acreage to corn for ethanol.

Corn Field for Ethanol
In the USA, 10 billion gallons of corn ethanol
will be produced annually within a few years.

There are many responses to these concerns, however. When producing ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane, for example, the energy payback can go as high as 8 to 1. In the case of corn ethanol, most analysts put the payback around 1.5 to 1, and at a margin that thin, there is plenty of room for interpretation. But the analyses that claim corn ethanol’s energy payback is insufficient to justify its use as a fuel ignore the caloric value of the distiller’s grain, a byproduct of corn ethanol production.

Critics of corn ethanol subsidies ignore the value of keeping these dollars in the U.S. to reduce the trade deficit. Those environmentalists concerned about the growing “dead zone” caused by agricultural runoff, presumably destined to grow even faster as we turn more acreage to biofuel, are certainly justified. But it is disingenuous to suggest that because we are distilling corn instead of harvesting grain there is somehow a more urgent problem than before. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico needs to be cleaned up. Agricultural runoff is an environmental challenge that awaits cost effective solutions – with or without the reality of biofuel.

The most problematic challenge to corn ethanol undoubtedly comes from those who are concerned it is causing rising food prices. But here again there are many significant factors that in aggregate eclipse the impact of corn ethanol, possibly by orders of magnitude. Rising per capita income in Asia and elsewhere has caused increased consumption of meat products, and livestock requires grain. Estimates vary, but for every calorie of meat consumed, about eight calories of grain have to be grown and fed to the livestock. This phenomenon has caused global demand for grain to grow far faster than it would already be growing due to increasing human population. At the same time, there have been temporary but severe setbacks to global grain output – a drought in Australia, flooding in the American mid-west. If that weren’t enough, commodities speculators have hedged themselves against devaluing dollars and falling asset values in stocks and real estate by purchasing commodities futures – driving prices up more than the forces of normal supply and demand already have.

Ethanol proponents have answered the critics in a variety of ways. The “25×25 Alliance,” an industry group committed to the goal of the USA producing 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, has issued “sustainability principles” for biofuel production. The National Corn Growers Association has compiled a great deal of data in an attempt to debunk the position that corn ethanol is the primary cause of worldwide food shortages and commodity price increases. Automakers are caught in the middle – a powerful environmental lobby demands cars capable of being fueled with alternatives to gasoline, then savagely turns on corn ethanol, despite the fact it is the only motor fuel alternative we’ve got that we can produce in meaningful quantities today.

In any event, corn ethanol isn’t the ultimate solution to biofuel supplies, it is only a transitional fuel. This crucial point is often lost amid the controversy surrounding corn ethanol. It is cellulosic ethanol that has the potential to completely replace petroleum based fuel, and when cellulosic ethanol begins to arrive in high volume, a preexisting ethanol infrastructure – cars that run on ethanol, fueling stations that sell ethanol, and a transportation network to deliver ethanol to retailers – will need to be in place. Corn ethanol is priming the pump for the arrival of cellulosic ethanol.

Within the next few years corn ethanol production in the United States is predicted to top 10 billion gallons. This is not a trivial amount of fuel, given the entire light vehicle fleet in the USA consumes only 15 times that amount. Corn ethanol has already reduced the demand for foreign oil for light vehicle use by about 6.5%. Nonetheless, critics who claim corn ethanol production cannot possibly increase enough to replace petroleum are correct. The math of these critics is elegant – 10 billion gallons of corn ethanol, at 2.8 gallons per bushel and 155 bushels per acre equates to 23 million acres, about 7% of America’s active farm acreage. If you use corn ethanol to service 100% of America’s fuel requirements for light vehicles, you use 100% of America’s farmland.

Once again, however, this math is missing the point. Corn ethanol, distilled from corn mash, is not the end of biofuel, it is just the beginning of biofuel. Even the impressive global production of ethanol from sugar cane is easily eclipsed by the potential of cellulosic extraction. So what is cellulosic ethanol, where does it come from, how can it be produced, and how long will it be before meaningful quantities of this fuel arrive at the corner filling station?

One of the most visible and visionary proponents of biofuel is the noted venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who early in his career was one of the four co-founders of Sun Microsystems, and has parlayed this spectacular victory into an impressive portfolio of investments in private sector companies. Over the past few years Khosla Ventures has invested in dozens of clean technology and sustainable energy companies, including several top tier biofuel ventures, including Coskata and Mascoma, mentioned later in this report. In a recent research paper written by Vinod Khosla entitled “Where will Biofuels and Biomass Feedstocks Come From ,” Khosla identifies and quantifies the many potential sources of cellulosic feedstock for ethanol fuel. Some of the information on the table below borrows from Khosla’s research, but changes some of the assumptions; other data comes from the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Ethanol Feedstock Chart
At least 1.0 billion tons of ethanol feedstock can be
sustainably harvested each year in the United States.

The figures on this table are arguably realistic, not optimistic, based on the following assumptions for each feedstock:

Dedicated land use refers to cellulosic crops, such as miscanthus or switchgrass, planted on 5% of American farmland (total US farmland is estimated currently at 317 million acres), less than is currently planted for corn ethanol production. At a yield of 15 tons of cellulosic feedstock per acre and 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of feedstock, nearly 24 billion gallons of ethanol can be produced each year. While 15 tons of feedstock per acre is more than can currently be grown, it is considerably lower than forecasts of yields expected within the next couple of decades, which range as high as 25 tons per acre.

Winter cover crops would not displace existing farmland, and if they were profitable to grow it isn’t unlikely they could become additional income for farmers on 25% of land already under summer cultivation. At a yield of 3 tons per acre – projections go as high as 5 tons per acre – another nearly 24 billion gallons of ethanol can be produced each year.

Redwood Trees
California’s Redwoods. Forest thinning could help
prevent catastrophic fires, reduce infestations,
and provide hundreds of millions of tons of cellulose.

Excess forest biomass is a difficult number to calculate, but when one considers there are about 750 million acres of forest in the USA (ref. Forest Resources of the United States), as well as the fact nearly all of them have become dangerously overgrown (major factors in more catastrophic fires and beetle infestations, ref. Restoration Forestry), the figure we’ve used of 226 million tons per year is probably quite low. It would suggest a growth in forest mass of less than one-third of a ton per acre per year. And in our estimate, even the figure of 226 million tons is only assumed to be 70% utilized. Forest thinning is a form of stewardship long overdue, it will return America’s forests to their healthier historical densities, and their excess mass will power our engines instead of burn in forest fires.

Construction debris and municipal solid waste are obvious candidates for cellulosic harvesting, and even the non-cellulosic materials can be used as fuel for the extraction of syngas (which is converted into ethanol), or reclaimed as building materials. According to the Dept. of Energy, 325 million tons of these waste resources are produced each year. We have assumed 90% utilization, and only 75 gallons of ethanol per ton, a yield that is below most projections.

Other waste resources are deliberately understated – just our industrial emissions are probably sufficient to deliver 100 million tons of feedstock. Also not included in this analysis anywhere else are crop residue, a huge source of feedstocks, some percentage of which can certainly be allocated sustainably to ethanol production without sacrificing soil health.

It isn’t easy to estimate just how much cellulosic feedstock could be sustainably harvested each year in the USA, but but two things are clear from this analysis. (1) When cellulosic ethanol extraction becomes a commercially competitive process, and the industrial capacity is in place to produce high volumes of ethanol from cellulosic materials, there will be plenty of feedstocks – at least 1.0 billion tons per year; possibly twice that. Cellulosic ethanol definitely has the potential to become a significant source of transportation fuel, and (2) Khosla’s contention that land use dedicated to ethanol production in the USA might actually decrease when cellulosic processing takes over is completely plausible. In the example above, no corn ethanol was produced, and the dedicated acreage committed to cellulosic ethanol was assumed to be 5% of America’s farmland, whereas today corn ethanol is grown on about 7% of America’s farmland.

So how will we convert cellulosic material into ethanol? There are hundreds of companies around the world working on ways to accomplish this, using a variety of technological approaches. Last month, while on a General Motors sponsored tour for automotive journalists, I had the opportunity to visit two companies who are pursuing promising, and very different, solutions to the cellulosic ethanol puzzle.

Our trip began in Chicago on the morning of May 21st, where about a dozen journalists assembled to drive a convoy of GM vehicles, all equipped to run on E85 ethanol. In a completely unexpected turn of events, I found myself behind the wheel in a high riding Chevy Silverado, painted with GM colors that announced to the world the truck’s status as an ethanol fueled vehicle, with extended cab and a monstrous bed. Although I was unaccustomed to piloting such a behemoth, there was excellent road visibility from the cab, and GM’s OnStar tracked my position and provided constant audio directions, so I swung into downtown Chicago traffic, and joined the late morning rush out of town. At one point it was clear we needed to move across a couple of lanes to catch our exit, and to make sure we would safely execute this maneuver amidst the 18 wheelers and such, I found it appropriate to smash the gas pedal to the floor and hold it there. The tactic was brilliantly successful, as this gigantic truck leapt forward with impressive accelleration and increased our speed from 45 to 75 in a matter of seconds. Safely in our place on the correct route, I let off the accelerator and knew the power of corn.

Bill Roe, Richard Wagoner, and Vinod Khosla
Coskata CEO Bill Roe and General Motors
Chairman Richard Wagoner seal the deal, as
early Coskata investor Vinod Khosla looks on.

About 40 miles west of Chicago, in Warrenville, Illinois, are the labs of Coskata, a company that is contending to be the first to commercialize production of cellulosic ethanol.

In February 2008 General Motors invested an undisclosed sum in this three year old private company, whose CEO, Bill Roe, stated “we do not believe we have any remaining technological hurdles.” Coskata is betting on this with a pilot plant they are building in Madison, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. They expect to have this plant operating early in 2009, producing 40,000 gallons of fuel per year. GM intends to use the fuel to test their growing fleet of E85 flexfuel vehicles.

Coskata’s technology for extracting ethanol from cellulose is elaborate, but apparently closer to commercialization than competing processes. Whether or not Coskata’s technology ultimately dominates is harder to assess, but according to Roe, the variable costs to produce a gallon of ethanol using their technology is expected to be under $1.00 per gallon. Here’s how Coskata intends to produce ethanol:

In the diagram below, “Coskata’s Manufacturing Process,” there are three primary steps. First the feedstock is shredded and dried, and fed into the gasifier, where it is reduced to syngas at a temperature of 5,000 degrees. Some of the syngas is used to provide the energy for the conversion process, but about 85% of the syngas is converted into ethanol in step two. A recent study by Argonne National Labs estimates Coskata’s process yields an energy payback of about 8 to 1.

The second step is to feed the syngas into a bioreactor, where microbes eat the syngas and excrete ethanol. These microbes are anerobic, meaning they can’t survive in atmosphere, and they are the result of careful selective breeding whereby they are now 100 times more efficient converting syngas into ethanol than they were when they began the process a few years ago. “We know our microbes can convert syngas to ethanol at commercial quantities, cost effectively,” said Roe.

The final step in the process is to feed the ethanol and water out of the bioreactor into a recovery tank, where the ethanol is extracted and the water is recycled back into the bioreactor.

From the look of things during our visit to Coskata’s lab in Warrenville, about the only bugs left in their process are the bugs in the bioreactor. According to Wes Bolson, Coskata’s Chief Marketing Officer, the company is actively seeking partners among the companies who have access to huge quantities of cellulosic feedstock, and currently have nothing they can do with it. These candidates include timber companies, sugar cane refiners, pulp and paper mills, and waste management companies. Coskata can also partner with companies who already are generating syngas, but haven’t got the bioreactor technology.

Diagram of Coskata's Manufacturing Process
Coskata executives believe their technology is ready today.

After spending a half-day at Coskata, our corn fueled convoy got back on the highway and headed south to Indianapolis, driving most of the way on southbound Interstate 65. And as our expedition hurtled through America’s heartland on this beautiful afternoon, as far as the eye could see, across the rain watered endless fertile fields of Indiana sprouted new shoots of spring corn.

If you are within blocks, long blocks, of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, during the last full week in May, you will likely hear the roar of the engines. And as we neared the track on the morning of May 22nd, we too heard and felt the sound as the drivers did qualifying laps in advance of the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500. In a thankfully soundproof auditorium on the massive infield of the racetrack, we attended an ethanol summit co-sponsored by GM, where I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Mike Ladisch, Chief Technical Officer of Mascoma. This company, like Coskata, is hot on the trail of commercializing cellulosic ethanol production, but they are pursuing a solution that will not rely on high temperature gasification. Instead, Mascoma is developing a biochemical method to convert cellulose into ethanol. Ladisch, a genial scientist who has taken a leave of absence from Purdue to serve as CTO at Mascoma, was understandably guarded about his company’s technology, but characterized it in the following way:

“The work at Mascoma is based on organisms and processes designed to rapidly break down the components of biomass, convert a range of sugars and polymers of sugars to ethanol, and thrive in a manufacturing environment.”

Mascoma intends to do this in one step using genetically engineered microbes that are capable of performing both processes. This is known as consolidated bioprocessing, or CBP, and perhaps represents the ultimate technology to extract ethanol from cellulose.

Another informed opinion on Mascoma (and cellulosic technology in general) was obtained via email from Dr. Lee Lynd, a professor at Dartmouth who, along with Ladisch, is one of the leading scientists in the world pursuing advanced cellulosic technologies. Here is what he wrote:

“Mascoma has the largest and most focused effort worldwide on consolidated bioprocessing, which I consider to be the ultimate low-cost conversion strategy. If Mascoma is able to continue this aggressive effort, I believe that they will succeed and that they will have the lowest cost technology for converting herbaceous and woody angiosperms (e.g. grass and hardwoods) to ethanol and other biofuels. It is less clear that the Mascoma approach will be best for gymnosperms (softwoods), and this could be a long-term niche for thermochemical processing along with processing residues from biological processing. Mascoma’s business strategy features a ‘staircase’ of process configurations, starting with options that can be commercially implemented very soon and progressing ultimately to CBP.”

How soon will Mascoma and others deploy these technologies? Although Mascoma’s website has an excellent description of the various cellulosic technologies (ref. Consolidated Bioprocessing), exactly when they expect their technology to be ready for commercialization appears to be a closely guarded secret. Other observers, off the record, have stated commercially viable enzymatic processing is 5-10 years away. But advances in biotechnology are happening at a staggering pace, and unforeseen breakthroughs are not something to bet against. On the other hand, even if Coskata, Mascoma, and countless other credible contenders to deliver commercially competitive cellulosic ethanol technologies were all ready tomorrow, it will still take years to build the new refineries and transform America’s light vehicle fleet.

In the meantime, corn carries the weight of being the primary source of ethanol in the USA, as the rest of the infrastructure falls into place. There are already 1,600 ethanol stations in the U.S. – about 1% of all gasoline retailers – and with UL certification imminent the big box chains are going to begin offering ethanol fuel, greatly increasing access. General Motors now offers 15 models of flexfuel vehicles; and they are now producing over 1.0 million of them per year. Other automakers are following suit. All over the world, governments are determining what percentages of ethanol fuel – along with other biofuels, biodiesel in particular – to blend into their transportation fuels.

How long can corn carry the weight of this growth, serving as the transitional feedstock? How soon can hybrids and extended range electric vehicles level off or even reduce the demand for transportation fuel? There is little doubt ethanol is a viable fuel for light vehicles, and there is little doubt cellulosic ethanol feedstocks exist in sufficient sustainable abundance to greatly offset petroleum consumption. Finally, there is little doubt that money and support for cellulosic ethanol commercialization is ongoing; from Washington DC to Detroit to the Silicon Valley, everyone is on board. The uncertainty lies in whether or not the new technologies to extract ethanol from cellulose will emerge in months or decades, and in how fast we can build large scale industrial capacity to exploit these new technologies. Look to pilot plants in Madison, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, for early indications of what may come, and when.

Email the Editor about this Article
EcoWorld - Nature and Technology in Harmony

Posted in Cars, Consumption, Drought, Energy & Fuels, Infrastructure, Journalists, Other, Science, Space, & Technology, Transportation, Visibility, Waste Management1 Comment

Garbage Fueled Garbage Trucks

Landfill gas is an appealing alternative to increasingly expensive oil-based fuels. This type of biogas is a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide that forms a liquefied natural gas (LNG) after being purified, condensed and finally super-cooled.

Linde North America and Waste Management are working together to create the world’s largest waste-to-energy facility in Livermore, California. Biogas will be used to fuel the fleet responsible for transporting the endless supply of garbage to the facility: This will begin the cycle of garbage fueled garbage trucks, where one would not exist without the other.

According to the Linde website “Linde [an international gases and engineering company] is responsible for the engineering of the plant as well as the cleaning and subsequent liquefaction of the landfill gas. Waste Management, North America’s leading recycling and waste management company, is supplying the landfill gas – which comes from the natural decomposition of organic waste.”

Methane gas is emitted when waste decomposes without exposure to oxygen, but methane does occur naturally in the environment as well: The EPA Landfill Methane Outreach Program explains that “Methane is emitted from a variety of both human-related (anthropogenic) and natural sources. Human-related activities include fossil fuel production, animal husbandry (enteric fermentation in livestock and manure management), rice cultivation, biomass burning, and waste management. These activities release significant quantities of methane to the atmosphere. It is estimated that 60% of global methane emissions are related to human-related activities. Natural sources of methane include wetlands [accounting for about 80% of emissions], gas hydrates, permafrost, termites, oceans, freshwater bodies, non-wetland soils, and other sources such as wildfires.

Methane gas produced by landfills currently seeps into the environment as wasted energy. Not only that, but methane supposedly causes more damage to the environment than CO2. Landfills are the largest source of human-related methane, accounting for almost 1/3 of emissions. It is only logical to absorb the gas for use as a clean and efficient fuel while eliminating another biproduct of human refuse.

Waste Management claims that “When the facility begins operating in 2009 it is expected to produce up to 13,000 gallons a day of LNG”. (press release)

Posted in Causes, Energy, Engineering, Landfills, Natural Gas, Other, Recycling, Waste Management0 Comments

Technology & Sun – India's Green Future

India at Night from Outer Space
India at night from outer space -
already glowing with energy and light

To ensure India will have adequate energy and water supplies in the future…

The first step is to predict where India’s population will level off. Assume India’s population is going to peak at around 1.3 billion people. This may be somewhat underestimating reality, but everything that follows can be proportionately increased based on higher population projections.

Next, determine how many units of energy (expressed in millions of BTUs per year), and how many cubic meters of water per year, on average, are required to sustain the lifestyle for a citizen of a fully industrialized nation. Currently, on average, each Indian citizen consumes 25 million BTUs of energy per year and consumes not quite 500 cubic meters of water. In the European Union, which provides a useful comparison, the average energy consumption is well over 150 million BTUs per citizen per year, and just over 500 cubic meters of water.

It is safe to assume India will employ more energy efficient “leapfrog” technologies as she industrializes, meaning that it will not be necessary to achieve increases in per capita energy consumption all the way to the levels of the Europeans. This is also a safe assumption because much of Europe’s energy consumption is required for heating during their much colder winters.

…assume that India’s per capita energy production will need to get to at least 50% of that currently enjoyed by Europeans. Taking into account projected population increases, this means India’s total national energy production per year will need to quadruple from 25 quadrillion BTUs per year to 100 quadrillion BTUs per year.

India’s water production per person would not have to increase, but overall supply will still need to keep pace with population growth, meaning India will eventually need to divert 667 cubic kilometers of water per year, up from 500 cubic kilometers per year today. Bear in mind that abundant energy leads to abundant water, since a cubic meter of seawater can be desalinated for a mere two kilowatt-hours (ref. “Photovoltaic Desalinization”).



With India’s future water challenges, the problem isn’t so much one of supply, it’s more a problem of uneven distribution. The north and east of India enjoy abundant supplies of water, but the south and west of India are relatively arid. It is important to note that if the proposed aquaducts, reservoirs and pumping stations were built, India’s major river interlinking projects, through a system of reservoirs and aquaducts, (ref. India’s Water Future) could then move water in cubic kilometer volumes relatively cost effectively. Once the costs of the interlinking system are borne, the biggest ongoing cost is the energy required for the pumps. But to pump a cubic kilometer of water up a 250 meter lift, which is what it would take to get water from the Ganges basin to the Deccan Plateau, would only require 100 megawatt-years of power. To pump 50 cubic kilometers of water per year from the Ganges basin upwards 250 meters into aquaducts flowing south and west, which is more than the most ambitious of India’s current interlinking projects, would only require about 5 gigawatt-years of electricity. This amount of electricity represents only about one-half of one percent of India’s current total yearly energy production (all sources).

Water Required to Pump Water from the Ganges to the Krishna Basin
As the table indicates, it would take 3.8 gigawatts of electricity (representing about 2.7% of
India’s estimated 2005 electrical generating capacity of about 140 gigawatts), running constantly,
to pump water 250 meters uphill at a volume of 38 cubic kilometers per year. Put another
way, a 250 meter lift will require about 100 megawatt-years for each cubic kilometer pumped.

Water supply in India, regardless of whether or not there are a few interlinking projects on a national scale, will be managed, overwhelmingly, using decentralized solutions. Both innovation and traditional methods can combine and evolve, proliferating via an information enlightenment nurtured by internet communications, to produce thousands of water management projects: cisterns in buildings, contour berms to collect and percolate runoff, refilling underground aquifers with runoff, and smaller but numerous new reservoirs (ref. “Harvesting Water”).

It is important to emphasize that as India generates more energy, more uses for water will be required. India is challenged not only to redistribute water on a national scale, but also to use water much more efficiently.

…plant biofuel crops in the desert…
Lumber Truck in South America
Strip mining the lands for biofuel is driving a
new round of global deforestation – especially in
the tropics – of catastrophic proportions.

When forests are regrown, more tigers and other wildlife may survive. Equally important however is the role forests play in increasing water supplies.

One often overlooked but decisive contribution to water supply and storage is through reforestation. India has lost about 90% of her forest cover. Watersheds need to be reforested everywhere, and when they are, the springs will flow again, and the water tables will rise. Forests moderate heat, they increase cloud formation and rainfall, they protect topsoil, and they nourish aquafirs. Do you want more fresh water? Then reforest India.
(ref. “Profitable Reforesting,” and “Reforesting Brings Rain”).

Not only on the land, but just offshore, reforesting needs to be a priority for India. The best way to protect India’s coast from tidal surges is to replant the mangrove forests (ref. “Mangroves Stop Tsunami”). Mangrove deforestation has occurred on a massive scale worldwide, and can be reversed simply by planting more mangroves.

Most projections of India’s future energy supplies are almost completely reliant on increasing conventional energy production, and they are also far too low. An interesting side note is that India’s most ambitious plans for nuclear power don’t amount to more than about 3% of India’s projected energy production (ref. “India’s Nuclear Power”). India cannot plan to simply double energy production, they must quadruple it. To do this, conventional sources (including nuclear power) are not sufficient. A breakthrough is required, and that breakthrough is almost here.



There is only one source of renewable energy that can quickly get built and installed and can produce 50 quadrillion BTUs or more per year, and that is solar energy, photovoltaic energy in particular (ref. “Power the World With Photovoltaics,” “Photovoltaic Powered Cars,” and “The Photovoltaic Revolution). India needs a photovoltaic array on every rooftop. Today photovoltaic cells, in the whole world, produce at most 10 gigawatt-years of electric power per year, which at 3,416 BTUs per kilowatt-hour, equates to only .3 quadrillion BTUs. Given worldwide energy production is over 400 quadrillion BTUs, photovoltaic power today is a drop in the bucket. But that is about to change.

Key Variables in China, India, the United States, and Europe
India’s terribly inefficient energy intensity (BTU’s per unit of GNP)
is reason for hope – through more energy efficiency, quantum
increases in energy output may not be necessary for India to
achieve first world per capita economic status

Photovoltaic manufacturing relies on supplies of polysilicon, which have never been reliable. But there are new designs that require far less silicon, or no silicon at all. These next generation photovoltaic cells are called “thin skin,” a catch-all term describing several technologies which all use a far thinner coating of photo-electric material. There are companies claiming to have this technology all over the world, including India. (ref. “Thin Film Photovoltaics,” “Crystaline Photovoltaics,” and “fuels/the-photovoltaic-boom.html). It is vital that photovoltaic technology be the top priority of India’s alternative energy research and development community, as well as for investment in manufacturing. There is no other plausible way to produce, within a decade, a quantity of energy sufficient to lift the Indian economy to sustainable prosperity. Even if the thin film breakthroughs don’t occur, India should invest in polysilicon manufacturing for the production of conventional crystaline photovoltaics. Even at current costs, conventional photovoltaics make long-term economic sense, and the greatest cost to their manufacture is energy, which can be produced by photovoltaics themselves. Conventional photovoltaics now have an energy payback of 20+ to one.

View of Asia from Space
India can have a green and prosperous future

Other than photovoltaics, solar electricity via solar-thermal arrays is surprisingly cost-competitive and space-efficient (ref. “Solar Thermal Power,” and “Saharan Solar Power”) The space-efficiency of solar energy collection units (electric and thermal) enables decentralized energy development. Alternative technologies in general support the design of each home or building being adapted to collect and store solar, wind, or even geothermal energy. In a modern green structure, thermal energy from any source can be stored on-site and converted back into electricity, as well as used for space heating and water heating. Thermal energy can even by used as an energy source for refrigeration. Clearly the design of buildings to acquire and store energy is another area where technology, tradition, and innovation can significantly address India’s future energy challenges.

Just as the potential for nuclear power to address India’s energy needs may be overstated – as well as the risks therein, the potential for biofuel is overstated as well, and the risks of biofuel are decidedly understated (ref. “IPCC Report & Deforestation,” and “Biofueled Global Warming”). Biofuel can provide an important supplemental fuel, but even at 2,500 barrels of oil per square kilometer per year – which would be an excellent yield – there is not enough land in India to begin to rely on biofuel to replace conventional fuels, let alone provide the fuel necessary to quadruple India’s energy output. As it is, biofuel crops are beginning to crowd out food crops, pushing up the price of food. Biofuel crops also can provide the reason for further deforestation. Biofuel crops make sense as a supplemental fuel, not as a comprehensive energy solution. Biofuel crops make sense in arid regions where any crop is a welcome bulwark against desertification, and biofuel will eventually be extracted from virtually all municipal waste, but under no circumstances should a forest be cut down just to grow biofuel.

India’s green and prosperous future will require education, infrastructure, innovation, pluralism, and enlightened, adaptable environmentalism.

Addressing India’s energy and water needs requires servicing five interrelated industrial sectors; agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, buildings and shelter, and waste management (ref. “The Electric Car Revolution,” “Clean the Ganges,” “Organic Farming in India,” and “India’s Energy Future”"). In all these areas, green technology and high technology, working together, can provide answers. Often solutions will embrace traditional practices as much as adopt scientific breakthroughs, and working synergistically within all these dimensions is necessary to quicken progress. It should be a source of inspiration that India can complete the process of industrialization today, meaning she can leapfrog obsolete legacy technologies that often hamper innovation in the west.

To produce so much more energy, to collect and distribute so much water, India’s challenges are daunting but achievable. The key is to balance large scale projects that are often costly and difficult to manage ecologically, with smaller projects that can be adopted at the scale of individual homes or communities. And at both scales, the solutions will be easier if there is a faith and reliance on India’s world-class intellectual and scientific community to provide assistance through high technology.

Ed Ring Portrait

About the Author: Ed “Redwood” Ring is the Editor of EcoWorld, reporting on clean technology and the status of species and ecosystems. This story was originally published in the January-March 2007 issue of “TerraGreen” Magazine, published by the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India ( In his spare time, Mr. Ring grows and gives away trees, especially his beloved Redwoods.

Email the Editor about this Article
EcoWorld - Nature and Technology in Harmony

Posted in Buildings, Consumption, Education, Electricity, Energy, Energy Efficiency, Geothermal, Infrastructure, Other, Population Growth, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar, Tidal, Transportation, Waste Management, Wind3 Comments

No Posts in Category