Making fuel from trash

With all the doom-and-gloom stories in the news about how we might soon run out of space in landfills and fossil fuels, it's nice to read about an innovation that uses landfills to provide energy.

Methane forms when organic waste decomposes in the absence of oxygen, as in landfills. At a few landfills, the methane is collected and used to power vehicles or to heat nearby buildings. But most of it goes to waste. Landfill operators burn it off to prevent dangerous build-ups of the flammable gas. Burning off the methane not only wastes the potential fuel, but it also pumps pollutants into the atmosphere. In Europe alone, landfills have the potential to generate as much as 94 billion cubic meters of methane per year.

Why don't we use the methane from more landfills? Well, people usually extract it by sinking pipes into the landfill and sucking the gas out. But if the landfill isn't airtight, sucking out the methane also sucks in air. The oxygen is not only difficult to separate from the methane, but it also slows down methane production inside the landfill. So, until now, the only landfills where methane extraction has been viable have been those large and deep enough to restrict the entry of air.

But Viktor Popov, at the Wessex Institute of Technology, has figured out some simple modifications that allow methane extraction from any landfill. His solution is to cover the landfill with a membrane that prevents air from getting in. The membrane consists of three layers: a middle, permeable layer sandwiched between two mostly impermeable layers. Popov continuously pumps carbon dioxide (which can itself be extracted from the gasses in the landfill) into the middle layer so that the CO2 is slightly above atmospheric pressure. This creates a barrier that prevents air being drawn into the landfill—as the methane is sucked out of the ground, CO2 gets sucked into it from the membrane.

You can see a diagram of how this works

A landfill can continue to be a source of energy long after it's closed to new garbage. Decomposition can keep going underground, producing methane, for 15 to 20 years.

Are you interested in new sources of energy? Would you be willing to pay more for "green energy" if the option were available to you?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

This sounds cool. I think as we move into the future we are going to see more and more people finding innovative ways of harvesting energy from our own waste. The Science Museum in London is looking at ways to turn the poop that its own visitors generate into energy. They are looking at storing the waste and then burning it to produce "clean" energy for the museum. This would save them tons of money and could actually make an interesting exhibit.

posted on Thu, 03/03/2005 - 5:30pm
steve's picture
steve says:

Wow,thats a cool idea

posted on Thu, 03/24/2005 - 12:49pm
Anne's picture
Anne says:

I have only been on the site for a few minutes and have already learned something new. Poop, huh?

posted on Thu, 03/03/2005 - 5:52pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Discover Magazine has run a couple of articles (registration required for second link) on efforts to turn all kinds of trash into usable fuel oil. As of last summer, a prototype plant was operating in Philadelphia. But a full-scale operation in Missouri was running behind schedule.

posted on Fri, 03/04/2005 - 9:33am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

The April issue of Discover features an article stating that the trash-into-fuel plant is now a success, and this technology may soon be making a contribution to US energy needs. The issue was mailed to subscribers last week, but won't be available on the newsstand (or on-line) for another month. I'll post a link when the story becomes available.

posted on Mon, 03/06/2006 - 10:53am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Here's the entirety of a little article from the April 2005 National Geographic:

Albert Straus keeps 270 dairy cows on his farm north of San Francisco. A well-fed cow produces about 115 pounds of manure every day. That's a lot of cow flops. But Straus has figured out a way to harness the power locked within the manure in a process that helps the environment and could eventually offset his electricity costs by two-thirds.

Straus pipes the liquid waste from his dairy barn into a set of covered ponds where anaerobic digestion produces methane gas. The gas fuels an engine that powers an electric generator.

Following California's 2001 electricity crisis, the state allocated funds for such projects. Straus was among the first to take advantage of the program. His closed-system method creates almost no by-products and adds no methane--a contributor to global warming--to the atmosphere.

"I also have an electric truck, which is fueled by the digester," Strauss says. "Someday I hope to run all our farm equipment on the methane right from the pond."

Cool, huh?

posted on Fri, 04/08/2005 - 3:15pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

This article talks about an animal-waste-to-fuel project right here in Minnesota. It also explains how the anaerobic digestion process works and how it creates energy. Check it out.

posted on Thu, 05/05/2005 - 9:41am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Minnesota Project, the University of Minnesota, and Haubenschild Farms have partnered to study and educate farmers on the economics and benefits of digesters and digested manure. This site has their project reports and results.

Methane produced by the digester runs a hydrogen fuel cell that creates electricity. This system has been called the first of its kind in the world.

posted on Thu, 05/05/2005 - 2:25pm
stuff's picture
stuff says:

Nikkei Electronics Asia said combined research from RITE and Sharp has resulted in technology to power entire households by using common-or-garden rubbish.RITE – the Research Institute of Innovative Technology – and Sharp think they can manufacture bio-fuel cells in the next two years powered by liquefied kitchen trash. And the result could be fuel cells the size of a matchbox which will fire up LCD TVs, while a device with a two litre capacity could power a whole house, the report adds.The breakthrough is that the boffins have figured that the liquefied goo will be fed to particular kinds of microbes which can generate large volumes of hydrogen. That's then used by the fuel cell to generate electricity.

posted on Thu, 06/22/2006 - 4:34am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Pioneer Press ran a story about the Haubenschild Farms project in today's paper.

From the article:

For five years, Haubenschild had a contract with a utility that covered the digester's operating costs. But when it expired and he found another outlet that paid less, he looked to the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America's only voluntary, legally binding greenhouse-gas reduction and trading system.

In just under three years, 130 private and public institutions such as Ford Motor Co., IBM, the state of New Mexico and the University of Minnesota have joined it, committing to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that trap the sun's heat. Those that can't meet an established emissions-reduction goal must buy pollution credits from members that exceed the goal.

The article continues:

With 100 cows producing enough energy each day to replace a barrel of oil, the renewable-energy savings are significant, [Haubenschild] said.

Haubenschild predicted other farmers would consider the arrangement.

"There's tons of interest," he said. "The closer you can come to breaking even, or being rewarded, it allows more people to do it."

posted on Mon, 01/16/2006 - 4:43pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I know there are alot of ways to use the fuel that we call waste. I'm sure that he is doing it for the money, but that's what it's all about anyway, Right???????? My hat's off to him.

posted on Sun, 11/13/2005 - 11:16pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, known for its Asian elephant breeding program, is trying to figure out if they can use the animals' poop to reduce the zoo's $400,000 annual heat and electricity bill.

It's the same technology used on many farms to convert waste to energy, except that the zoo's six elephants produce more than half a ton of poop each day! Also, elephants don't digest their food very efficiently, which makes their poop higher in energy content than the poop of some other animals.

Depending on the process used, the animals waste could produce methane or hydrogen to power a fuel cell or generator.

posted on Wed, 05/04/2005 - 4:32pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Dallas Zoo is also looking at using a biogas generator to turn animal waste into power. Officials say the project (estimated to cost about $1million) will pay for itself within 10 years.

posted on Fri, 11/02/2007 - 1:24pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I'm not sure if I would be willing to pay more for a "green" fuel but I'm not sure it would actually cost more. Ultimately it would probably turn lanfills (an expensive, dangerous, land-intensive and messy enterprise) into a treasure mine. We have them now and if retrofitting could be done inexpensively, I'm sure many of them would jump at the chance to make another buck or two.

posted on Wed, 09/14/2005 - 8:30am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Why should it be more expensive to produce energy from waste .. considering how much it costs to bury it /dispose of it .. we have quite a generous supply of waste .. even if the process was not very efficient we would be getting rid of the waste ??

posted on Sun, 06/04/2006 - 11:50pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This all sounds well and good but how practical would this be, and how much would it cost? I think part of our energy crisis stems from the population of the world. And those people who can't afford something like this, do they all suffer? And what would this do to our own class system here in the United States we need to look at the big picture here and really think about what we're going to dip our funds into.A full proof, affordable, and prooven plan would be the best alternative.

posted on Thu, 05/04/2006 - 5:49pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I would totally be willing to pay more for "green" fuel. By paying just a little bit more you are saving Earth, giving it a longer life. Do we not want Earth to last for millions of years to come? Well I know I do.

posted on Sat, 09/17/2005 - 9:08pm
Bill Roush's picture
Bill Roush says:

We are going to turn the garbage in to clean briquettes. We will then use them to generate electricity. Read about our project in Costa Rica.

posted on Sun, 06/04/2006 - 11:21am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

The costs seem very inconsistent. When I was in Minnesota, E85 (85% ethanol; 15% petroleum) generally cost just a few cents less than regular gas. But you got worse mileage. Now I'm in Michigan. I finally found an E85 station, and they charged about 10% MORE than regular gas! Which is bad enough when gas is reasonable; right now, it's outrageous.

It depends how often you fill your tank. If you fill it a couple times a week, and green fuel costs $3 to $5 more per tankful, that really adds up over the course of a year.

Of course, ethanol might not be the best answer anyway, since planting and harvesting the corn all requires machines that run on gasoline!

posted on Sun, 09/18/2005 - 8:45pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Exactly Gene. The production costs of ethanol weighed against the amount of energy we can get out of the fuel (scientists call this the Net Energy Balance), could be 1:1. In other words it takes as much energy to produce it as it actually provides us. In September 2000, Harper's Magazine cited the US Department of Agriculture, saying that 90% of the energy return of ethanol was eaten up in production costs.

However, this paper, presented in 2001 by the USDA suggests that the fuel is quite efficient with a net energy balance ration more like 1.67.

This is one of those perfect examples of how science is always changing around you and that everyone doesn't agree. It also reflects how we often can't ignore politics in these issues, since all of this would change if our government decided not to provide the massive subsidies it does to our nations farmers who actually grow the corn for ethanol.

But ethanol isn't the only green fuel. A good friend of mine runs his diesel engine Volkswagen on biodiesel. The guy he buys it from operates out of his Minneapolis garage, so the distribution network isn't exactly huge just yet. But in the future this could be an interesting alternative fuel.

posted on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 10:05am
bryan kennedy's picture

Want to learn more about biodiesel? Make Magazine had a recipe for brew at home biodiesel in their latest print edition. But, they also have an online radio program where they talk about all the different aspects and parts of biodiesel.

posted on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 10:23am
bryan kennedy's picture

Mike Hatch, Minnesota's Attorney General is looking into Ethanol price collusion. Just today the Star Tribune reported that he is concerned about how Ethanol prices have risen along with all petroleum fuels while corn prices have stayed the same. I would be surprised if there was a conspiracy here but it is an interesting local story on this alternative fuel.

posted on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 11:12pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I think conspiracy and/or collusion would be difficult to prove.

First of all, there's the law of supply and demand. When the cost of petroleum goes up, some people stop buying petroleum and start buying cheaper alternatives -- increasing the demand for those alternatives, and driving up the price.

Second, if people are willing to pay $3.00 a gallon for petroleum to make their car go, there's no reason why they shouldn't be willing to pay $3.00 a gallon for some other product that does the smae thing, even if that product is cheaper to produce.

There's a reason they call Economics "The Dismal Science." ;-)

posted on Tue, 09/20/2005 - 9:54am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Bad news for biofuel. This article in New Scientist magazine claims that demand for plant-based fuels in Europe is damaging the tropical rainforests! The oils come from palm and soybean plants, and farmers are cutting down rainforests to plant these crops. The law of unintended consequences at work again!

posted on Wed, 11/30/2005 - 12:17pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think it is very important to save earth! I would pay more for "green" fuel.

posted on Thu, 09/22/2005 - 1:51pm
Kayleigh's picture
Kayleigh says:

I am doing a science fair project on recycleing as in turning garbage to fuel and i was wondering if you had any helpful info. for me? thank you for your time\r\n\r\n\r\n Kayleigh\r\n

posted on Wed, 10/26/2005 - 9:12am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Check out the links in the posts above. They should lead you to some good information.

posted on Thu, 10/27/2005 - 12:14pm
Anonymous K's picture
Anonymous K says:

nice! i like the idea!!!

posted on Mon, 11/14/2005 - 3:59pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

you should make print bigger

posted on Mon, 11/28/2005 - 6:25pm
Brian's picture
Brian says:

This is a very interesting solution to the consistant build up of garbage in landfillsand i think it's a good idea\r\n

posted on Sat, 01/14/2006 - 2:08pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

According to this report, Japanese scientists have found a way to get gasoline from cow dung. They are keeping their process a secret. And, after doing some calculations (and searching the web for information on Japan's petroleum consumption), I figure this process could, at best, produce a bit more than 1.5 million gallons of gasoline per year -- assuming every cow pattie in the country was converted, and not a single drop of gasoline was used in harvesting this "crop." That works out to about one ten-thousandth of Japan's oil needs -- literally, a drop in the bucket.

posted on Mon, 03/06/2006 - 10:47am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I'm doing a report on Viktor Popv's method and i need to know how much this method would cost, if it has been tried, and if the government has been involved with it. if i could be replied back to as quikly as possible i would really appreciate it.

posted on Sat, 02/03/2007 - 7:24pm
kelvin's picture
kelvin says:

hi am kelvin chidi plz is there any one here who can produce fuel from cow plz tell me

posted on Tue, 02/20/2007 - 11:33am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

this is awsome

posted on Thu, 10/25/2007 - 9:18am
luluandfifi's picture
luluandfifi says:

yeah i know!!!

posted on Fri, 10/26/2007 - 1:18pm
KellBell  :P's picture
KellBell :P says:

I would never pay more for a new type of green energy, especially if it is being drawn from landfills. There is no reason to pay more for something so easily attained. The point of looking for alternative energy is not only to stop harming our environment, but to reduce costs as well.

The alternative that I support is a process called plasma torch technology. By burning garbage at temperatures three times hotter than the sun, we can gather the resulting gas and burn it to produce electricity. You can read more about it at USATODAY

The Plasma Torch Method can kill two birds with one stone while your methane method only solves the fuel crisis. With the plasma torch, the waste that is burned is permanently destroyed and landfill sites can be reduced in size and we can all take a breathe of fresh air without choking on the decomposition fumes, the methane. By just sucking out the methane, all we are doing is taking away the fumes. The waste is still there, and the trash is still accumulating, and a problem still exist.

Plasma Torch Technology is THE WAY of the FUTURE!!

posted on Sun, 02/03/2008 - 10:24pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

find more alternate fuels

posted on Tue, 05/20/2008 - 9:56am
jdent.43's picture
jdent.43 says:

i think this is a good first step

posted on Wed, 09/03/2008 - 10:42am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i really like this idea it is good for the enviorment and its helping us. In ways it helps everyone and thing. we were running out of room in landfills and its a great thing whoever came up with this that now we have more room for garbage. Also positive things are coming out of it in the end.

posted on Thu, 04/30/2009 - 2:38pm
joshreese's picture
joshreese says:

hey nice project

posted on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 7:37am
waste transfer stations's picture

What a very nice way to utilize plastic.
It is indeed a very preferable method. :D

posted on Sat, 06/04/2011 - 8:06pm
plumbing's picture
plumbing says:

This is a brilliant idea. If people will use trash as a fuel, it will help lessen the oil price hike that people all over the world are experiencing.

posted on Thu, 06/09/2011 - 5:15am

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