Jun
29
2007

Fecal matters. Energy-wise. According to this article.

Dear Readers,

Now, please raise a hand or two if I’m getting ahead of you, but I think it’s time we get down to business.

You’ve all heard of “the future,” correct? Flying cars, artificial intelligence, iPhones, and excremental fuel sources? I thought so. Or is there anything here that you are, as of yet, unfamiliar with?

Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how.    (photo by Mimi K)
Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how. (photo by Mimi K)

Ever since the release of Back to the Future Part II, flying cars have been, more or less, old news, and Tamagotchi has put to rest all fears of A.I. iPones will remain a mystery to all of us for another few hours, at least, but are we all clear on the matter of turning excrement, or “poop,” into sweet diesel fuel?

Oh. I see. We haven’t all been doing our assigned reading, have we?

Well, if the responsible among you would like to put your heads down on your desks for a few minutes, I’ll refresh the rest of the Science Buzz readers.

Chemists around the globe have been hard at work on various processes to convert organic, carbon-based waste products into something very much like crude oil. Examples of organic, carbon-based waste products include, but are not limited to, chicken and turkey guts, old tractor tires, Sega Genesis cartridges (in part), lawn compost, cookie dough, defective jewel cases, ramen noodle wrappers, my fingernail clippings, old magazines, new magazines, tennis shoes (right and left), twine, super glue, baseball hats, worn out VHS copies of “Biodome,” and, naturally, human fecal matter.

The method for turning carbon products back into something like petroleum is relatively new, although certainly not unheard of. By applying the right conditions (heat, pressure, and, uh, other stuff) to the contents of, say, a couple tons of landfill, you can end up with a crude oil like substance, and some left over minerals and metals. The trick is in refining this process so that the energy needed for the transformation is less than the potential energy of the fuel output. As scientists come closer to a workable method, government and industry have been taking a closer look at large-scale applications. This article mentions Britain’s interest in the technology needed to turn their organic waste – of all sorts – into transportation fuel.

As something that produces carbon-based fuels, this process wouldn’t exactly halt the output of global-warming CO2, but it’s not quite so harmful as burning fossil fuels because, as the article puts it, “the carbon produced when the fuel is burnt was absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants or trees used to make it.” That is to say, it wouldn’t create new CO2, because the organic components of the fuel had just been taking in carbon that was already in the atmosphere.

The facilities required for the process are, unfortunately, extremely expensive. Once everything is set up, however, the fuel produced could potentially be very cheap. And the ingredients aren’t generally difficult to produce.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Gene's picture
Gene says:

We also discuss trash-into-fuel in this thread. There are links to articles about such facilities in the US. And some Japanese researchers using cow dung.

I'm not sure I buy the argument

...it’s not quite so harmful as burning fossil fuels because, as the article puts it, “the carbon produced when the fuel is burnt was absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants or trees used to make it.” That is to say, it wouldn’t create new CO2, because the organic components of the fuel had just been taking in carbon that was already in the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels (coal, oil) also come from plants which took CO2 from the atmosphere. Or they came from animals which ate plants.

posted on Fri, 06/29/2007 - 8:27am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I think I'm with you for the most part, although I think it has to be a little better to be burning stuff that is part of a more recent carbon cycle - as opposed to tapping into the huge resevoir of carbon that's held up in fossil fuels.

I probably shouldn't get too into it (because I don't know much about the subject and might be totally wrong), but I think the periods in which coal, and then oil, were formed had pretty high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (try making sense of this graph)
and we're better off recycling the carbon already in our atmosphere than re-releasing the old carbon.

Which isn't to say that the solution to climate change is to just go on burning carbon based fuels, just so long as they aren't fossil-fuels.

And, again, I'm not very confident on this. If anyone can educate me on carbon-neutral fuels - whether it's a solid concept, or a crock of bio-fuel - that would be great.

posted on Fri, 06/29/2007 - 1:33pm
Ahus1102's picture
Ahus1102 says:

it is true that we need to recycle but also it is important to do it because it effects our envirment if we don,t do it. so i would say recycle.

posted on Fri, 01/16/2009 - 11:29am

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