Waste to fuel initiative led by Robin Hickey
How do you deal with the problem of domestic waste, in an environmentally responsible way? That’s the question being answered by a British team, led by Robin Hickey, which is looking at better ways to deal with waste.
Traditionally, domestic waste has been transported to sites for landfill, often filling up pits in the ground left as a result of the extraction of minerals such as sand, gravel, stone for construction or even open cast coal mining. When a section of open pit is filled back to level, then it will typically be covered with a thin layer of soil, and grass sown on the top.
However, often the rubbish will create gases as it rots, presenting its own issues which mean that an extract system will need to be fitted into the garbage and the gases vented or burned off. And as there is an issue with the escape of potentially dangerous chemicals, then crops cannot be grown on the new surface above. Likewise, for the same reason, there are concerns about undesirable chemicals leaking downward into watercourses deep under ground, possibly polluting water sources used for human drinking water.
With these problems at the forefront of minds, and with developed nations seemingly creating more and more rubbish, governments are now acting, often using taxation to make recycling more attractive, and landfill a more expensive option. However, Robin Hickey and his colleagues are working on a new option that is preferable to other routes recently investigated, such as incineration. This latter option creates its own concerns, with worries about the residual chemicals in combustion gases, and as a result few people want an incineration plant built near their communities.
The route that Robin Hickey and colleagues at BDE are taking is to investigate the potential for creating a useful product from waste biomass material, such that it can be turned into a fuel for replacing other currently used organic fuels, or for creating electricity. Having removed all items such as metals, paper and plastics, which can currently be recycled, the residual matter is sterilised using steam before a micro-organism is added, which then reacts with the waste to create ethanol.
Already Robin Hickey and his team are preparing a pilot plant for a Russian town; other countries in North Africa are also planning to take up the technology, to help solve their waste disposal problems. The idea of creating a fuel from waste is highly attractive, particularly to those nations that are highly dependent on imported fuel, thus leaving their economies liable to external shocks from increases in international oil prices. This new process has the potential to not only reduce the waste sent to landfill or incineration, but to improve a country’s energy independence, too – a double benefit.