Case in point, there was once a byproduct of kerosene production that
was so useless, early oil refiners used to dump it in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River
that runs through downtown Cleveland.
Its name? Gasoline. Eventually the oil refiners figured out a use for it and
in time it because the driving force behind oil production itself.
The story of waste follows a similar path in almost any field of endeavor.
Scrap iron, recycled plastics, treated water—the march of civilization is
toward a society that uses all of everything, at least once, and maybe several times over.
Everything, of course, is a cycle. Biomass becomes product, product produces byproduct, byproduct becomes waste, waste is broken down by bacteria into soil-enriching molecules and works its way back into bio mass. The goal for humans is to extend that cycle, and extend it in a way that leads to useful, affordable products.
What’s riding on that ambition? Oh, not much. The survival of the species in a scarce-resource world—remember that much of human suffering came from resource wars. So the stakes are huge. For bioenergy there are two parameters in that endeavor, and only two.
One is aggregation of the feedstock—or the belief that it can be feasibly
aggregated. The second is a technology that unlocks value—adds value
— by converting the byproduct from a waste residue to something useful
and available at an affordable price.
Built into both of those costs, of course, is the implied parameter of time.
It is very true to say that you can take a barrel of algae, dump them in
some shallow trench, and come back in 60 million years or so and find
that the Earth’s geological pressures have slowly liquefied all that biomass
into a valuable material known as crude petroleum. Same as you can toss
plant waste into the same trench, and possibly come up with diamonds
when all the hydrogen and oxygen have leached out and the Earth’s pressure has done its work.
But the time scales are all out of whack.
The more cycles that can be extracted from the material, the more feasible all of them become, all up the value chain to the initial moment when
the biomass was first grown or harvested from the wild. Every waste-to-
useful cycle adds value to the product immediately being produced (for
example, producing ethanol from municipal solid waste), but it also adds
value up the line (for example, in avoided landfill cost—or simply in the
recognition that a byproduct has acquired value).
It is not hard to imagine that, in the future, all products will be measured
not by their intrinsic value, but in the value they produce within an industrial symbiosis.
Take the industrial city of Kalundborg, in Denmark, as an example. Nine
partners including world-leading companies and municipal service providers exist there in a circular ecosystem of economy. They range from
Novo Nordisk, an international biotechnology company; to Kalundborg
Municipality, supplier of, among other things, the water and heat supply
for the city’s approximately 20,000 inhabitants; to DONG Energy, which
owns Asnæs power plant, a coal-fired plant and the largest in Denmark.
And, every community member, every farm, participates as a customer
or supplier to the symbiosis.
Here’s an example: The Inbicon cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant is
based there. It obtains process heat and steam from the Asnæs plant. It
obtains waste wheat straw from local farmers. In turn, it converts waste
straw into ethanol and lignin. The ethanol is supplied to the market as a
cash product, while the lignin is supplied to the Asnæs plant for power
cogeneration, replacing coal.
In this example, no original product is used, only waste material in the
form of straw and process heat that was previously left to vent or rot. What
comes from the process? A valuable transportation fuel and a byproduct
that replaces coal for power generation, which in turn supplies power to the
Inbicon plant and to the industries and people of Kalundborg.
Technologies for Biofuels
There are a great many enterprises working on waste products, all around
the world. Not the least is in biofuels—where you have the benefit that
the molecules that you create don’t have to live up to the technical purity
and performance levels required for green chemistry. They simply can be
ignited as transportation fuels displacing (generally imported) fossil fuels
such as gasoline or diesel.
There are biofuels technologies that use agricultural waste, such as the
POET project near Emmetsburg, Iowa, or the Abengoa project in Hugoton, Kansas. There are technologies that use animal waste, such as the
Dynamic Fuels project in Geismar, La., or the Diamond Green Diesel
project ready for completion in Norco, La.
And there’s more. There are companies using municipal solid waste, such
as the Enerkem projects in Edmonton, Alberta, and Westbury, Ontario.
There are projects using forest waste or pulp waste, such as the Chemrec
project in Sweden, and the Mascoma project planned for Kinross, Mich.
There are also companies using industrial waste gases, such as New Zealand’s LanzaTech project in Shanghai, China.
There’s more than road transportation fuel being produced. There is biodiesel to run generators in deep mine shafts, immensely improving air quality and long-term health for miners. And, there’s the investment that British Airways recently made to build a plant that will convert municipal trash from East London into fuel for BA’s operations out of Heathrow Airport.
Jobs, The Other Benefit
There is more than simply creating a product that is at stake when we
find ways to make valuable fuels or materials from the residues around
us. In my essay in Biofuels Digest (Jan. 18, 2012) “Energy Freedom Comes
to Vero Beach,” I told the story of how this sleepy Florida resort and agricultural community turned its garbage into jobs and the beginnings of
an economic revival.
Using agricultural and municipal solid waste from the Vero Beach landfill as its feedstock, and government help with financing, the new 8 million gallon INEOS Bio cellulosic ethanol plant will use a combination of gasification and fermentation technologies to produce 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol and provide power for 1,400 homes in the area. It will also generate new jobs.
Today, there are around 900 unemployed people in Vero Beach. According to the Opportunity Finance Network, one new job will be created or
retained for approximately every $21,000 in community lending. Well,
my math tells me that the $20 million or so Vero Beach has shelled out
for gasoline each year that can now be kept and reinvested in the local
community represents around 1,000 net jobs. This would make Vero, by
the numbers, something even more special in these job-scarce times we
live in. A net jobs exporter.
What happens when money is kept in the community and reinvested?
Well, that is just another outcome of the waste cycle. Rather than seeing capital leach out of the community to pay for fertilizers, fuels, and other fossil fuel products, capital stays in the community to build businesses that provide jobs— jobs that provide opportunities for young people. Keeping families together, whereas today in rural communities all around the world, the young people have to leave the small towns for jobs in the cities, breaking that vital family support chain.
You see, waste offers opportunities not only for industrial production,
but in building stronger extended families, and promoting health for all.
That’s an example of a real symbiosis, and one worth working towards.