Turning ordinary waste into jet fuel

Here’s a cool interview with the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers on the process of converting landfill waste into usable jet fuel I caught on BBC radio.

What is this process? Why do we want to do this?

Processing landfill waste into green fuel. The resulting fuel is a good quality one and is better than conventional jet fuel. This green fuel can be easily blended into existing fuel so it is straightforward in the pov of the engines. This will help in a reduction in landfill and greenhouse gas emissions.

Challenges?

The raw materials coming in is not controlled. One day there could be a lot and the next you might not get the equal amount. The inputs are variable and stuff in there may be contaminated.

What is the process?     

The main process is called the Fischer-Tropsch.

First – High Plasma Gasification. Breaking down rubbish into simple molecules.

Second – Clean the gas (one of the most important steps). Free the gas from harmful trace materials.

Third – Build up the small molecules to large again. Chemical synthesis to make it into well-defined product.

Is any type of waste usable? 

Glass, sand, metals are removed. Only the organic part goes in. Plastics, paper, food waste are ok.

This is dependent on the taxation regime and the need for carbon taxes to subsidize what they do. There are huge taxation being put on landfill, emissions trading scheme, carbon target. And incentives to do things like not throwing away waste and filling landfills. But it depends on the taxation regime and the need to subsidize what they do.

The Fisher-Tropsch process, started in 1930s, was originally was intended to turn coal into liquids, then gas into liquids. Now waste is being made into liquids.

What’s the difference between waste and biomass?

Waste is in smaller quantities.

How much fuel can be produced?

A typical plant produces half million tonnes waste a year, which converts to 100,000 tonnes of fuel: half jet fuel, half diesel.

The Fisher-Tropsch process started in the 1930s but did not catch on. Is there any new tech now to make the process more efficient?

Most of the inefficiency comes at the beginning. About 2000 tonnes of waste is blasted through the plasma per day. A lot of energy is needed – approx. 12 megawatts of plasma needed to combust the waste initially. You put in 1/3 electricity that you get produced at the end.

Does it make economic sense?

There are internal processes that can recycle the energy that is created to power back into the gasification process. The idea is to squeeze the most valuable output out of the waste. There aren’t many alternative ways. In order to get a sustainable jet fuel, it has to be good quality. You need to accept certain energy loss on the way to achieve that goal.

Isn’t it just displacement of CO2? The energy you use has to come from somewhere else, what if it’s from a coal-burning electricity plant? 

No, it is a sustainable process.

Is there any waste from the process?

There’s not a lot left. That’s a small percent of about 1-2% of the 2000 tonnes a day coming in. The key bit is, it’s a complex process. It produces 1% of British Airways demand for jet fuel. 99% are not using it. We need to do these to get it up 2-3%. 1% of one airline is not going to make a lot of difference.

Conclusion

Once the concept is proven it can be rolled out on a larger scale, a higher impact can be made. Cities produce rubbish and cities need airports — this is a natural connection. Hopefully more cities will adopt this process and make it more sustainable.

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Six Pillars of Sustainable Business and Reporting

ACCA released a policy paper on sustainability business and reporting matters, comprising 6 pillars that would facilitate a better and more responsible business environment —

  1. sustainability reporting
  2. integrated reporting
  3. assurance of non-financial reporting and disclosures
  4. climate change
  5. natural capital
  6. green economy

Like how good audit standards and regulations would help prevent potential financial frauds and scandals such as Enron, non-financial reporting and accountability for companies’ insidious impacts on social and environmental aspects are certainly needed as well.

Currently, businesses are not required to adhere to any sustainability reporting requirements. The traditional model of reporting tends to however be restrictive and short-sighted, not accounting the potential non-financial damages that can be done to the environment around us.

After having spoken to some of the professionals working at Big Four firms in Singapore, I was told not many companies are paying attention to the external impacts made from their business decisions, nor are they invested in sustainability reporting. Only large companies that come under public scrutiny such as BP would try to comply with corporate social responsibility frameworks. Furthermore, end-users of financial statements themselves are generally not as keen in understanding beyond the financials of companies.

However, it is truly important that regulators start realizing the importance of laying out the ground rules for sustainable accountability. Companies should start developing metrics, information systems, reporting and designing economic instruments that help make our economy greener, looking beyond economic output to factor in non-traditional measures, such as human well-being and natural capital.

Note on ACCA and sustainability reporting:

ACCA works with standard setters, governments and regulatory bodies to ensure that standards and regulations concerned with corporate sustainability are fit for purpose. They are involved with the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit; technical working groups and governance boards of key standard setters, for example the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Natural Capital Declaration (NCD).

Tesla’s growth in China

Following my previous post on electric car batteries’ sluggish development, news just came in that Tesla signed a deal with China’s real-estate developer Soho to expand their car-charging outlets in Beijing.

The deal would comprise a total of 9 charging spots around Soho’s properties in the downtown area of Beijing.

On June 11 2014, Tesla also promised to build 40 more charging points around China (according to an agreement signed with Yantai Holdings).

Now one would wonder, is an increment of 9 charging stations going to make any dent in the development of electric car market? The Chinese government targets to have a goal more than 5 million electric cars by 2020 – that is merely another 15 more years from now.

Adding charging outlets would unequivocally make the switch to an electric car more alluring because it is simply more convenient to travel and recharge your car when you need it. However, considering China’s land mass and the presence of its monolithic rivals Sinopec and CNPC (PetroChina),  it would probably take longer than hoped for to reach a state of energy nirvana.

China is the world’s second-biggest oil consumer and has a growing appetite for oil that may one day surpass that of the U.S. which views Canada’s oil sands as a pillar of its future energy needs. Canada is increasingly looking to China to sell its vast oil reserves after the U.S. delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Quick Trivia

  • Tesla delivered the first model S cars in Shanghai and Beijing in April 2014
  • There are 3 supercharging stations in China, located in Beijing and Shanghai.
  • Superchargers, owned and built by the company, allow Tesla car owners to replenish their battery life as much as 16 times faster than at public charging stations and for free.
  • Norway, which has the highest electric-car ownership per capita, had 4,029 charging points and 127 quick charging stations. They get incentives for owning electric cars such as tax-exemption, free parking, charging and are exempt from road tolls.

References: Bloomberg, facts and details

Obama’s Climate Bill – Cutting Coal 30% by 2050

Cheer-worthy news: for the first time in history, an American president is showing care (to some extent) about the environment.  Mr Obama announced a new environmental regulation to reduce overall carbon emissions by a whopping 30% by 2030.

Apparently, they are already a third of their way towards meeting the goal of 30% cut.

However, the amount of coal reduction that each state would need to achieve varies. EPA made a fantastic virtual interactive map of where power plants reside and the detailed analysis + breakdown of the current and targeted emissions levels. For a table of states and their proposed levels of reduction click here. States such as West Virginia would be subjected to a smaller percentage cut of less than 20% while states like Washington would be 70%. Each state’s luck depends on how energy dependent they are on coal and how ready they are for the switch.

Again, for your ease of info-digesting and for those lazy to read chunks of words such as yours truly, here are some breakdown of the pros and cons of this new regulation. FYI – For your crunching. Not to be accepted as hard facts.

Against:

  • Create an energy crisis and lead to power shortages
  • Inflate electricity prices
  • Job losses

For:

  • Lower medical bills and fewer trips to the emergency rooms, especially for kids with asthma, the elderly and infirm.
  • Environmental justice- lower-income families and communities of color are hardest-hit by climate change
  • Reduce smog and soot, avoiding premature deaths from heart attacks and lung disease.
  • Energy efficiency leading to lower cost, greater competitiveness.
  • More jobs would be created in the deployment of clean energy usage.

Facts:

  • There is no regulation or cap as to the amount of CO2 that can be allowed in the atmosphere at the moment in America.
  • Power plants are the largest source of pollution, contributing roughly about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 1600 power plants, 600 of which are coal-powered.

To help ease the process of transition, the kind EPA provided a few broad solutions for power companies panicking at the moment:

1) switching from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas

2) forming cap-and-trade markets

3) expanding renewables such as wind and solar power

4) encouraging customers to use less energy by moving to more efficient heating and cooling systems and appliances

Basically, no matter what you do, you have to comply with it.

Of course, the country is divided on this new law as to whether it is a boon or bane to the future. Taking into account the amount of time that Obama is giving heavily-polluting companies to wake up and respond, I would say it’s a fairly generous move. Plus, they get 10 years between 2020 and 2030 to meet that goal. In total, they have about 15 years to think about how to rectify any reckless polluting behaviours. Sweet.

Sources: Guardian, Climate Progress, Vox, EPA 

The slow demise of Li-air batteries for electric cars

Yet another development in the electric car industry: IBM and Joint Center for Energy Storage Research lab (JCESR) funded by US-government announced that they would unwind their research titled “Battery 500 Project” for lithium-air batteries which started back in 2009.

The director of this project, Winfried Wilcke, announced his new-found fondness towards sodium-air batteries instead of lithium-air ones. He believes now that the sodium equivalents would be more economically competitive as compared to the lithium-air ones.

Here’s a table of comparison for the different types of electric car batteries:

 Type Lithium-air batteries (2009) Lithium-ion batteries (1991)

Sodium-air batteries

 What
  • Oxygen interacting with Lithium to generate electricity.
  • Cathodes like cobalt
  • Most common in electric cars
  • Oxygen interacting with Na to generate electricity.
 Pros
  • 500 mph on single charge
  • Cheap carbon cathode
  • Higher energy density than Li-ion and Na-air batteries
  • High energy density
  • Very stable
  • NaO2 formed and decompose into Na, O2 which is reversible process, efficient
  • Na cheaper & more abundant than Li
 Cons
  • Relatively unstable
  • Production of waste product lithium carbonate
  • Added weight and cost due to the need to maintain conditions of the electrodes


  • 100 mph on single charge
  • Expensive metal oxide cathode
  • Energy capacity/storage life depletes after each cycle.
  • Can only recharge approx 10 times.

Batteries Comparison Table ©The Green Plebeian

What happens during battery discharge:

  • The metal (Na or Li) is oxidized at the anode/electrolyte interface, and the resulting electron is transferred to the outer circuit. At the cathode, oxygen is reduced to a superoxide species that may form a metal superoxide in the presence of the oxidized metal.
  • The metal superoxide in a Li-oxygen cell is highly unstable and reacts further.
  • The metal superoxide in a Na-oxygen cell is much more stable and doesn’t decompose further, allowing the reaction to be reversed.

Speaking to an Electrical Engineering friend of mine, I found out that research and development in the clean battery field is still lagging behind other renewables, partly because of the difficulty to make breakthroughs in its limitations. However, with the increasing rate of market expansion of electric cars throughout the world (See post on Tesla), the next generation of highly usable and efficient batteries could be well on its way to revolutionize the automobile industry.

Solar Powered Roads: A Hoax or Panacea?

Solar Roads are all the rage on the internet now. This couple Julie and Scott from America started a company called Solar Roadways a few years back. They recently turned to indiegogo and got a whopping USD$1.8 million worth of support from plebeians who were equally hyped about their promise to save the world.

I came to awareness of this “tech” first from a friend who posted on facebook, boasting its prowess in making a real difference and even potentially considering working for it in the future. So I got curious and went to check it out. Their indiegogo campaign video “solar freakin roadways” was an excellent marketing feat. It made my heart race, blood accelerate and pupils dilate 10 times larger. As a first-time viewer, I was equally pumped about the idea of saving the world, ending global warming, generating new jobs and rescuing the failing economy – all these just by having solar road ways.

But aside from the incredible media and public attention it attracted, I started noticing that there was no indepth mentioning of the technical feasibility in terms of cost, scalability or implementation of the project. Their pitch for the $1m call was this:

“We asked for $1 million to hire an initial team of engineers to help us make a few needed tweaks in our product and streamline our process so that we could go from prototype to production.”

There was hardly much scientific backup of why this would be a better alternative to the existing solar panels that we see fixed on roof tops, desserts and other open spaces. They claim their version of solar panel to be “smart, micropocessing, interlocking, hexagonal” solar panels. After given $750,000 fund from the Federal Highway Administration back in 2011, all they came up with was a small parking lot prototype.

What about the cost of digging up old roads, putting in the new solar ones and connecting all of the million highways and roads together? How do they transmit the electricity generated from sun to actually power houses or buildings? What exactly is the advantage of these over existing solar systems? If the main goal of the roads is to harness solar power, wouldn’t it make more sense to just build solar panels on totally unobstructed surfaces rather than roads where cars would be overshadowing the panels?

So they tried addressing some of the questions in their FAQ, such as:

How much will your panels cost?

We are not yet able to give numbers on cost. We are still in the midst of our Phase II contract with the Federal Highway Administration and we’ll be analyzing our prototype costs near the end of our contract which ends in July, 2014. Afterward, we’ll be able to do a production-style cost analysis.

If a parking lot is full of cars or a highway has lots of traffic, how are they going to produce any energy?

Traffic jam

This picture is from Orange County, CA during work traffic. The upper six lanes are what we’d refer to as “bumper to bumper” traffic. Even with this congestion, you can see how much of the road surface is still exposed to sunlight. As we travel around the country doing speaking engagements, we see miles and miles of roads and highways with virtually no traffic. So we believe it will have a negligible impact on the Solar Roadway’s overall efficiency.

Sure, but…What if it was this instead?

So essentially, the couple is counting on random piecemeal shots from Google Earth to tell us that there wouldn’t be problem with collecting enough energy to offset the high installation costs, because there will not be much traffic as depicted from this photo. Very dubious-sounding evidence. Sounds more like a dire need to learn the art of data research and analysis to make a more cogent argument. Up to now, it is all talk and little proof. I await their analysis report in the near future and hopefully, their backers would not be disappointed with their investments and that this idea would actually be one that works.