News that has nothing to do with Election 2008

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With all the news coverage focused on the election, there are a lot of important and/or awesome things that have escaped attention. Here’s a quick overview of environmental news that’s worth following:

First off, it’s common to get a craving for pumpkin pie around this time every year. But it would take hundreds of people to eat a pie made from this enormous 1,900 lb pumpkin. This behemoth is expected to set a new record for giant pumpkins (a record that has grown bigger every year in recent memory). Maybe this is the monster that Charlie Brown’s been waiting for.

I’m sure that pumpkin wasn’t grown naturally, but no one tried to stick an organic label on it at the store. On the other hand, some businesses have been caught making false environmental claims to sell their products. It can be challenging to tell greenwashed products apart from their legitimate green competitors, but one way to make informed choices is to research the companies involved. Many large companies now publish yearly ‘Corporate Sustainability Reports’ that describe their environmental track record. Corporations are also assigning a dedicated board member to oversee environmental performance. Many of the pro-environment changes that companies are adopting also contribute to the bottom line, and make great economic sense while money is in short supply.

On a related note, the credit crunch is slowing down plans to build new wind farms. Even though wind power accounted for about a third of all new power capacity built last year, the credit climate is making it really hard to line up investors. Wind energy is also running into some problems of scale. Windy days in Washington state are causing salmon deaths in a weird series of unintended consequences. As the wind picks up, wind turbines generate more and more electricity. The excess electricity floods the transmission lines, and automatic controls kick in to shutdown other sources of power. In some cases, this causes hydroelectric dams to idle their turbines and dump water over spillways. If only there was an efficient interstate transmission system, or a better way to store electricity, this whole chain of events could be avoided.

But what if we lived in a world without any need for a power grid? Bloom Technologies is trying to create a lower pollution future based on efficiencies of micro-scale. With small fuel cells, the company hopes to eliminate power loss from transmission lines and bring electricity to the third world. As a bonus, they are designing fuel cells that produce hydrogen as a byproduct – that waste gas could be used to warm homes and fuel vehicles.

Whether cars burn hydrogen or gasoline, tailpipe emissions are pretty much inevitable. This waste product has something that is surprisingly useful though – untapped energy in the form of heat. Researchers are developing new thermoelectric systems that can harvest electricity from tailpipe emissions. If they can keep cost and weight to a minimum, these devices will likely be incorporated into a wide range of hybrid vehicles to boost mileage. The energy recovery isn’t 100 percent, but it can really add up to a serious boost in efficiency:

GM researcher Jihui Yang said a metal-plated device that surrounds an exhaust pipe could increase fuel economy in a Chevrolet Suburban by about 5 percent, a 1-mile-per-gallon improvement that would be even greater in a smaller vehicle.

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Turning trash into fuel for our cars

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Trash, trash, trash. We’ve got plenty of it! Just take a look around your neighborhood on trash pickup day – all those bulging bags are headed to the landfill, where they’ll be buried and put out of sight, out of mind. Yet those bags may contain a solution to high fuel prices.

In the near future, our cars could be powered with gases produced by decaying waste. A test project is underway that will effectively convert a 30 acre cell of the McComas landfill into a giant compost pile. For the project, researchers are laying 7 pipes in various layers in the landfill, and the pipes will recirculate leachate through the trash heap. By adding nutrient rich moisture to the pile, these pipes will allow bacteria to digest the trash at an accelerated rate (200-300% the rate of decomposition in other landfills).

This accelerated decomposition will help conserve space in the landfill, but it will also produce methane gas as a byproduct. Methane gas (also known as natural gas) is distributed to homes and businesses by natural gas utilities. Methane from the McComas landfill will be transported by Atmos Energy, and sold to heat buildings, run industrial machinery, and generate electricity. Methane can also be compressed for use by buses that use natural gas for fuel , or even processed into hydrogen for the next generation of gasoline-free cars.

Landfill gas is an alternative source for hydrogen fuel, and using waste to produce our fuel is one way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The majority of hydrogen produced today is derived from petroleum products. Converting landfill methane into fuel is a double win, because it reduces the use of gasoline while also preventing the release of methane into the atmosphere. This is important, because methane gas has an even greater effect on climate change than carbon dioxide.

So, how much gas are we talking about here?

As it stands, McCommas already captures about 5.6 million cubic feet of methane a day, which is piped to an on-site plant operated by the independent company, Dallas Clean Energy. Some of the city’s estimates show that by 2012, output could exceed 20 million cubic feet per day.

The conversion rate from methane into hydrogen is about 66%. That means the McComas landfill could produce 13.2 million cubic feet of hydrogen daily. Across the entire country, our current production of Hydrogen amounts to about 3 billion cubic feet per year, so this one landfill could more than double our current hydrogen production.

There are many more landfills in the US. We have about 3,000 active landfills and 10,000 old landfills, all full of trash that’s breaking down into methane. Tapping them to produce hydrogen gas would be a great way to escape our addiction to oil.

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