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Human Waste As an Alternative Energy Source
With all the news these days about renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy, even harnessing the energy of ocean waves, one often overlooked source of energy is right under our noses, so to speak: human waste. It may not be as attractive or comfortable as the alternatives, but generating energy from human waste might be the most important of all. The world’s population is growing every day along with the demand for energy and resources, and resources are becoming scarcer and more sought after. The only potential resource that will increase in proportion to the population is our own waste. Feces and urine are abundant and readily available wherever there are people. Currently, huge amounts of energy obtained from the burning of fossil fuels and (often drinking) water are used to process the aforementioned waste products. New projects in composting toilets, biogas collection, biofuel creation and even microbial fuel cells could allow us to turn the tide and harness this untapped resource.
Although skeptics believe that composting toilets will never succeed in the Western world, new technologies as well as old ones are being used to solve two problems: how to deal with waste and how to produce enough food without poisoning ourselves and the environment with expensive fertilizer chemicals. The next generation of composting toilets, like the one made by Clivus Multrum, solves these problems and makes the system more attractive to consumers. The low-flow composting toilets they produce include a compost bin in the basement, and the service is included in the product. The non-governmental organization Estamos in Africa uses a significantly lower-tech version of the composting toilet. While the organization’s goals are to improve sanitation and reduce disease, their programs also help small farmers earn a living. The organization provides free composting toilets and has greatly improved the quality of life of many poor families. The director of the organization, Feliciano dos Santos, won the 2008 Goldman environmental award for ecological rehabilitation for this work.
Many countries have well-established methane capture programs that use animal waste, such as pig farms in Australia and cattle farms in the United States. But what about the gas-generating potential of human waste? Developing countries are introducing this technology as a way to save money and generate renewable energy. With the help of the International Heifer Foundation, rural farmers in Uganda’s Mukono district are mixing human feces and urine with other biological waste such as water hyacinth and banana peels to create biogas, and using the byproduct to fertilize their fields. The biogas produced contains 60-90% methane and is used for lighting, cooking and some engines, and many residents improve their quality of life and rise above the poverty line. Likewise, Cyangugu Prison in Rwanda generates biogas from the excrement of its inmates. The Institute of Science and Technology in Kigali built a digester for the prison, which uses the resulting product to cook 50% of the prisoners’ meals, saving $22,000 a year — a large amount of money in Rwanda. But developing countries are not the only ones exploiting man-made biogas. The Lions Gate Wastewater Treatment Plant in Vancouver, British Columbia, once the subject of a lawsuit alleging violations of federal pollution laws, has launched a $1.1 million project to capture methane from the city’s sewage system and inject it directly into the distribution system natural gas. The project, which is expected to be operational in 2009, is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 500 tons per year and produce enough energy to power 100 homes. A similar project is underway in San Antonio, Texas.
Current debates surrounding plant-based biofuels focus on competition between food crops and biofuel crops, and many experts worry that high demand for biofuels will exacerbate current food shortage problems. Several projects have tackled this problem by creating biofuel from algae grown on human waste. One of them is Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation, which collects algae used in sewage treatment ponds in Malborough, New Zealand. The “green oil” they create from algae can be used for all crude oil applications such as gasoline, diesel and plastics. In a more direct process, Canadian company Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation puts human waste directly into a biofuel production system using a “fast pyrolysis process.” The system achieves 80% efficiency by recovering waste gases and heat from the process, and the final product, BioOil®, can be used as a substitute for various petroleum products. One of the most advanced, state-of-the-art technologies for generating energy from human waste is the development of microbial fuel cells. Developed by Dr. Bruce Logan of Penn State’s engineering department, the system was proposed as a way to take waste treatment facilities off the grid. The fuel cell, which is still being refined to produce acceptable energy, uses wastewater to produce hydrogen fuel, with clean water produced as a by-product. Although the technology is not practical for other fuel cell applications such as hydrogen cars, it can be used anywhere there is a large amount of biological waste.
Many people cringe at the thought of energy systems based on human waste and would rather not think about what goes on in the pipeline, but as humanity becomes more demanding of energy, we must begin to embrace unconventional methods of producing it. With the increasing success of the aforementioned projects, there is a possibility of eliminating human waste pollution around the world. One day our wastewater could be called “brown gold” and could be even more valuable than crude oil.
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