Boom Heat Magic: 4 Innovative Energy Sources

The universe is brimming with energy. Here on earth it’s pulsating all around us: in air, sea and soil, in wood, bone and flesh. This is very convenient for humans who rely on it for powering nearly everything — from our cars to our computers to our triple soy latte-fueled days. Ages ago, our ancestors discovered that a simple way to capture and channel energy to our bidding was to extract materials from the earth and burn them. The problem is that now, short of furniture and wall trimmings, we’re running out of stuff to throw on the fire.

Enter renewable energy sources. Wind, sun, water and common ethanol crops (such as corn and soy) are the most obvious — and media-celebrated — “solutions” to our energy woes. But the truth is, the days of relying on one or two major sources to meet the world’s energy needs are as passé and unsustainable as coal and crude themselves. It’s going to take a hybrid of new technologies to meet the energy demands of tomorrow’s latte sippers.

Luckily for all of us, vast amounts of energy lie furtively in mediums we never might have suspected. With the race to solve the global energy crises in full tilt, progressive research labs the world-over are developing new and innovative methods of fabricating oil, gas and electricity … sometimes from thin air. Here’s our breakdown of four promising energy “super-sources” at work in the world today — some of them new, some old, but none mainstream … yet.


SUPER SOURCE I: Everybody’s Poop

Potential: Pardon our potty mouth, but with tremendous amounts clogging sewage plants, landfills and livestock operations, poop — or, more specifically, methane, its gas byproduct — is proving a valuable untapped energy resource. Left unchecked to billow out into the atmosphere, methane is a global warming nightmare, with heat-trapping effects more than twenty times that of carbon dioxide. Handily for us, however, the majority of its global warming impact can be eliminated by capturing and burning it as a fuel.

How does it work? Businesses collect sewage or livestock manure and pump it slowly through 200-foot-long covered, sealed chambers called “anaerobic digesters.” Particular microbes in this airless environment mulch the goop, and emit methane at an approximate rate of six cubic feet of gas per pound of dry material.

Why you should be impressed: A 3,000-head dairy facility can produce enough continuous energy to keep 60 average sized three-bedroom homes powered all year long, and manure from the 9 million dairy cattle currently grazing American pasturelands could power 180,000 three-bedroom homes.

How long before it’s ready for primetime? Since the introduction of methane-producing anaerobic digesters in the 1800’s, the technology has had a lot of time to mature. In dairy-rich regions like Vermont, large farm operations are already sustaining 100 percent of their electricity needs with “cow-power.” Look for the sewage treatment and livestock industries to follow suit. “Poop-power” is on its way.

Any snags? Nothing experts can’t handle. This technology is moving forward — fast. In Longmont, Colorado, Heartland Renewable Energy plans to have a plant fed by the manure of 50,000 cows online within six months. The plan: to sell the methane gas to electricity producers, cutting coal out of the picture. Colorado State University is on the case, too, convincing livestock, sewage and other methane-producing facilities to install anaerobic digesters.

 
SUPER SOURCE II: Horatio Algae

Potential: Scientists and biotech-savvy entrepreneurs have pegged algae as the most lucrative source for biofuel production yet. Consider the numbers: a single acre of land could produce five to 10,000 gallons of oil per year — a tremendous contrast to the meager annual turnout of soybeans: 50 to 100 gallons of oil per acre. The technology is so promising that Boeing, the world’s largest airplane manufacturer, is currently moving into the initial experimental stages of developing an algae-based biodiesel jet fuel blend.

How does it work? Algae is raised in large covered ponds and continually harvested. The one-celled organisms (whose bodies may consist of 50 percent oil) are dried and processed, leaving behind only vegetable oil. This raw product could then be refined onsite into either diesel fuel or jet fuel — which differ in their respective triglyceride compositions — or sent away to off-site refineries for treatment and commercial distribution.

Why you should be impressed: An algae cell can form, mature and divide in just hours. Requiring no food source, other than the carbon dioxide and hydrogen already in the atmosphere, the growing algae release oxygen, thus cleansing the air of a problematic pollutant (CO2) while providing the essential gas of life (O). The best part? Just five to 10 percent of America’s cropland, if converted to algae production, could supply liquid fuel needs to the entire U.S.

How long before it’s ready for prime time? Researchers must make algae biofuel competitive with $60-per-barrel oil. This could be just two years away.

Any snags? Right now, the energy costs of harvesting the algae, drying it, extracting the oil and refining the final product outweigh the energy output of this biotechnology. Centrifuges which separate the oils from the carbohydrates that make up each algae cell run up some particularly high energy costs, but by simply growing larger quantities of algae per facility, cost-efficiency could be streamlined. Currently, experimental sites consist of one-acre or smaller ponds, but the experts envision algae-growing farms covering hundreds of acres — even thousands — within several years.

Who’s working on it? Some 30 companies in the world, with a half-dozen U.S.-based businesses taking especially large strides toward streamlining the oil-extraction process. Solix Biofuels, in partnership with Colorado State University, is among the leaders. The company plans to establish algae farms adjacent to New Belgium Brewing Company to utilize CO2 from the beer fermentation vats to facilitate algae growth.


SUPER SOURCE III: Good Ole’ Garbage

Potential: The United States and Canada currently toss about 350 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) into trashcans every year (picture 8,500 football fields piled 25 feet deep with trash). Within this glut of unwanted refuse dwells energy that can be transformed into jet fuel, gasoline, diesel and other combustibles or even converted directly into electricity.

How does it work? Through a process called “gasification,” which consists of heating a material to a temperature on par with the sun’s surface. The intense heat breaks up the material’s molecular structure, which, in a sense, crumbles apart into pure hydrogen and carbon monoxide, byproducts which in turn can be combined into synthetic gas, or “syngas” — a building block for the liquid fuels which power the world. Believe it or not, unlike simply burning materials (which emits a host of nasty pollutants into the atmosphere) gasification is a remarkably clean process, which thoroughly breaks down and completely vaporizes every bit of the feedstock. Afterward, virtually no waste matter, like ash or dust, remains; all the energy has been converted into the desired hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Why you should be impressed: Using gasification, solid waste which otherwise would fester in landfills and spew methane into the atmosphere (exacerbating global warming) becomes a liquid fuel that can power your car.

How long before it’s ready for prime time? Japan established the first commercial-scale gasification plant for MSW and other refuse, including sewage sludge, in 2002. Today, the largest gasification plant, also in Japan, processes over 200 tons of waste daily. And in St. Lucie County, Florida, officials plan to launch a gasification plant capable of processing 1,100 tons of MSW daily by 2010, providing 40 megawatts of electricity — enough to continuously power 16,000 homes.

Any snags? Technology developers must streamline the system for transporting MSW to gasification plants in order to reduce operational costs.

Who’s working on it? Nuon Magnum in the Netherlands is experimenting in gasifying chicken waste — a biomass source of tremendous potential around the globe. Choren Industries, based in Germany, has partnered with Shell Oil and Volkswagen to develop the process of gasifying biomass to make biodiesel. And Westinghouse Plasma Corporation in Madison, PA is leading the way in developing technology to build MSW gasification infrastructure worldwide.


SUPER SOURCE IV: Making Fuel Out of Thin Air

Potential: Air and water, virtually unlimited resources, contain all the periodic elements that comprise gasoline and, channeled through specialized electrochemical processing cells, these molecules can actually be reconfigured into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

How does it work? Hot air rises by convection upward through a “cooling tower,” like the ones that ascend from nuclear power plants or coal-burning plants. As the air rises, a solution of potassium hydroxide and potassium carbonate dissolved into cold water is showered downward through the air. The solution extracts CO2 from the air, collected at the bottom in open troughs, then pumped through room-sized cells. Here, an electric current zaps the water solution and releases the hydrogen and CO2 as vapor. This vapor is piped into tanks where heat, pressure and dehydration turn the gas into either gasoline or crude oil.

Why you should be impressed: No mining, drilling, wars, troops or farms are required. Experts have done the math, and a single plant, they say, could churn out enough liquid fuel daily to keep a city of 500,000 people rolling.

How long before it’s ready for prime time? Experts believe technology will be fully available for commercial use within five years.

Any snags? The process demands tremendous volumes of air to provide the necessary carbon dioxide for fuel production. What’s more, converting air and water into fuel will require massive amounts of heat to move the needed air into the system — an energy demand, say experts, that could only be met in partnership with nuclear power plants or coal-burning plants.

Who’s working on it? Dr. William Kubic and Dr. F. Jeffrey Martin at Los Alamos National Laboratories are working with private grant money to get this project off the ground. There is nothing theoretical about it, says Martin: “All parts and aspects of this are based on existing pieces of equipment.”

The Takeaway

Just as surely as a blade of grass holds the energy of the sun, the technologies outlined above are vibrant with potential. But before you park an algae-fueled jet in your driveway, consider the fact that no energy technology will ever be completely free of environmental costs, among them carbon emissions — a problem which won’t go away, even if we phase out fossil fuels.

The single most effective solution for curbing global warming is still reducing each one of our personal carbon footprints while simultaneously pushing for maximum efficiency in the technologies on which we currently rely. Let the scientists and entrepreneurs duke it out for primacy in the energy race. In the meantime, we’ll turn off the TV, switch off the lights, and ride our bikes into the sunset.

Alastair Bland is a freelance writer in San Francisco who spends most of his time writing emails and riding a bike.

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