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I like to read the fun scientific journal Energy and Fuels from time to time.   If you must know, it's sort of a guilty pleasure, because so much of this journal is devoted to the chemistry of dangerous natural gas, dangerous oil, and dangerous coal, three fuels whose use I oppose and wish to see phased out.

I am almost completely alone in this desire, or feel I am so, even though one can find people who give a lot of lip service to this cause, while not understanding a damn single thing about what such a cause would involve, technically or economically.

Still, if one were interested in technical approaches to abandoning these fuels - none of these will be adopted, but rather we will choke our planet to death burning the last gram of fossil fuels all the while broadcasting cute and useless pictures of wind farms around on our portable electronics - one should "know the enemy," and, just as there are useful things to learn about refractory systems from the failed thermal solar industry's research, there are interesting things to learn from reading about the chemistry of fossil fuels.

I am ambivalent, and by ambivalent I mean "not totally hostile to" three forms of so called "renewable energy," one of which is hydroelectricity, the second of which is geothermal energy, and the last of which is biofuels.   I don't think that biofuels are actually a viable solution to addressing anything but a tiny fraction of human energy requirements, but they can - under limited circumstances - be a useful tool to recover carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, albeit not under the conditions under which they are currently industrailly practiced.   However, Energy and Fuels does cover regularly the means under which they might make a contribution, which is thermal gasification.   The paper I will cite in this brief diary comes from the current issue of Energy and Fuels and is entitled Behavior of Phosphorus and Other Inorganics during the Gasification of Sewage Sludge and it is published by a group of French scientists.

Right now, I'm reading a fabulous and wonderful book called "The Big Necessity" by an insightful, fine young woman named Rose George, which is all about sewage practices around the world.  She has traveled the entire planet to talk and walk shit - yes, she has crawled through the sewer systems of London and New York, visited latrines, talked to world experts on toilet technology.   Because she asks the questions that no one thinks about, she's a real asset to this planet of lotus eaters.

She reports that about 2 billion people out of the 7 billion people now living here have no access to even the most basic sanitary facilities, and that deaths from improper sanitation easily exceed worldwide deaths from malaria and AIDS combined, but the problem is especially intractable because, um, people are uncomfortable discussing, well, shit, even though shit is one of the world's largest health and environmental issues.

So let me talk shit.   (I'm good at that in any case.)   Shit matters.

I have always been amused by the "Eureka!!!!!" kind of comments that one sees on various blogs talking about the manifestation of "biogas from poop" miracles du jour.   Whenever I hear this sort of thing, I'm inclined to ask - and sometimes do ask - whatever biogas cheerleader happens to be leading the cheer at that moment, to compare the size of his or her poops with the size of his or her gas tank.  

Sometimes, regrettably not always, this kind of image can stop this particular brand of "renewables will save us" wishful thinking dead in its tracks.

There is not enough human shit, cow shit, pig shit, horseshit or chicken shit on the entire planet to save the American car CULTure lifestyle.     Period.

But clearly there is shit, lots of it.

How much shit is there?

The Energy and Fuels paper suggests an answer for Europe, but first this excerpt from the paper:

This research deals with biomass thermochemical conversion by gasification to produce fuel synthetic gas or “syngas”. The type of biomass that was selected for this study is the dried sewage sludge. The high organic content of sludge (5070 wt % of the total dry solids) constitutes a potentially valuable renewable energy resource without any impact on food cultures. Moreover, sewage sludge gasification is a technical challenge,1 as a result of the particularly high mineral content of the biomass (i.e., 30-50% of the dry solids).

And now the question that need answering, the "how much" question:

Finally, from an environmental viewpoint, gasification may  provide a solution for the waste volume reduction of sludge with a high yield of energy production (i.e., electricity and/or fuel). In Europe, for instance, the year round production of sludge is estimated at 10 million tons of dry solids (or 42 TWh).

How much energy is 42 TWh?   It translates into 0.15 exajoules of energy for the entire continent of Europe.    For contrast, Germany, which is Europe's largest user of coal energy, produces about 3.31 exajoules (3.15 Quads) of coal energy.

(Neighboring France, by the way, uses only 14% as much coal as Germany, although as Europe's second largest user of energy, it uses almost 80% as much energy as Germany does.    Almost all of the coal used in France is used for the purpose of making steel, whereas the Germans burn coal and dump the coal waste into the planetary atmosphere, a practice that is about to get much worse in that august country.)

The rest of the paper goes into some interesting chemistry concerning phosphorous, and its recovery (or lack of recovery) from sewage.

Phosphorous is yet another problem you really don't want to know about.   Eat, drink and be merry.

Have a nice day tomorrow.


Should we talk shit?

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| 27 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Volatile lead fractions, boiling zinc, insoluble (5+ / 0-)

    aluminum phosphate double salts clogging up my gasifier, supercritical shit, the use of septic sludge for Boudouard production of carbon monoxide, coburning sewage sludge with coal, those funny expensive Japanese Toto toilets that eliminate the need for toilet paper by spraying your ass with water and then air, the deforestation of the Canadian Boreal forests to make toilet paper, turning perfectly good drinking water into sewage, the hidden costs of refusing to talk about shit, stinky little hide rates and pure clean hydrogen based troll rates all go here.

  •  As a major producer, I'm glad to read about it. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    northsylvania, NNadir, JamieG from Md

    I don't think mine has much phosphorous because I shop at Whole Foods.

  •  My life was shit... (7+ / 0-)

    seriously... My working life was spent in the water utility industry.  Large urban wastewater treatment facilities have a terrible time figuring out what to do with all the sludge that the plants produce.  Currently, most of them dump it in landfills.  Solving the metals and other inorganics in it problem would likely yield a significant energy source.  

    If only the US would perk up interest in math, science and environmental engineering in our school systems... not to mention increase funding in education, along with research and development in the area of waste utilization.  Too soon dead... too late smart.  

    Rise Up! Still not thy voice - Slack not thy hand!

    by Arkieboy on Mon Dec 19, 2011 at 10:17:35 PM PST

    •  I worked nearly 3 years as a Chemist in WW plant. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      northsylvania, melo, Syoho, JamieG from Md

      We used to collect the methane and use it to run the plant and the administration & lab building. I always thought if I build a house would put in methane collection tank on a septic system (if I can get by building codes. I want to put in a compact wastewater system ... Not gray water that will go into aseperate system). There is enough shit to significantly cut household reliance on other methods if we cut back on how much we use electricity for.

      I love talking about how valuable shit can be LOL

      Fear is the Mind Killer

      by boophus on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 12:10:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  have you looked into composting toilets? (0+ / 0-)

        I've just read about them on the internet, but have never seen one or met someone who had one.

        I don't know if building code would allow one either.

        •  There are very important efforts to make (0+ / 0-)

          these available in the third world.

        •  Yep but I would like to capture gas from the (0+ / 0-)

          anaerobic digestion process. Actually started thinking about how a digester has a significant heat (really gets hot down in those digesters . Was trying to decide if you could run heat capturing pipes through a septic tank and heat maybe a green house that sits over it. Or woudl siphoning off heat decrease the anaerobic digestion?

          In some ways this also reminds me of mulch piles and garbage dumps and manure water. Mulch piles and garbage dumps produce significant heat and gases leaving good fertilizer which if heated enough through processing deep within the pile kills pathogens.

          Now manure water is something we did for our home garden.  This is an old technique where you take a barrel half full of water and throw in meat scraps, animal manure, egg shells  and bones into it to make a godawful smelling but rich fertilizer. The protein in the meat is a rich source of nitrogen. The bones provide some needed micronutrients. But gotta  watch the odor to detect if it has gone septic... Never did in all my years using it as a kid. In effect though it is similar to digestion process.Pour it around base of plants.

          When I worked with waste water I was studying viral and bacterial remnants in the sludge. Pretty dang good natural process. What doesn't break down is the huge volume of chemical compounds we are dumping in our waste stream. I used to laugh at the diamond rings and false teeth we found but really all kinds of solvents are found leaving homes as well as drugs , etc.

          We waste so much and out of a sense of ickiness (based on potty training ) we reject really looking at waste streams. Maybe in the future we will mine them for the wealth that resides there. I am actually thinking of compiling dump site maps for the future.

          Now what I really want is people to do a collection to send a team to collect up all that freaking plastic forming islands in the ocean. We can't really use the plastic yet but we could sequester it for later use when we develop methods to break the chains of atoms that form it.

          Fear is the Mind Killer

          by boophus on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 12:31:41 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  It's seems like you'd need a minimum input (0+ / 0-)

            of poop (larger than a typical family) to produce sufficient anaerobic digestion for methane recovery.  I can't say for sure.  There must be a calculation somewhere for cubic feet of gas / pound of poop.  YMMV for lb. of poop / anus.

            Regarding heat recovery from anaerobic digestion, a ground source heat pump can work efficiently in most conditions.  You can even make a heat pump system that withdraws heat from a lake just above freezing.  Plus there aren't the many safety hazards associated with gas, oil, steam, or electrical heating.

    •  Your life was well spent. (0+ / 0-)

      I cannot think of a more important task than water/sanitation supply.    It's one of those things we all depend upon, but appreciate very little.

      This is a shame.

      As for sludge I don't think that such a solution would produce "significant" energy, but it would help.

      I have always envisioned sort of a double whammy approach to thermally treated biomass based on Boudouard chemistry.    The original paper touches on that case a little, showing a sort of classic boudouard curve for CO/CO2 ratios.

      It's a wonderful paper; and I enjoyed reading it a great deal.

  •  Yorkshiremen say (0+ / 0-)

    "Where there's muck there's brass."
    It would be interesting to get the brass out of the muck and reuse it too. Good diary.

    "Bootstraps are a fine invention as long as they are attached to boots." blueoasis

    by northsylvania on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 12:42:51 AM PST

  •  So why aren't we trying to clean up the world's (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JamieG from Md

    pollution and sewage with changing world technologies, otherwise known as Anything into Oil? Even if it's not perfected yet, why are we not hearing about it at all anymore?
       I asked John Hofmeister about that directly and he tried to obfuscate by telling me (for the benefit of the not-knowing-better crowd around us) that "thermal depolymerisation" is the name for steam-cleaning the last of the product out of the oil deposits. Baloney, I said, that's totally not the same process and he's trying to change the narrative, by deliberately misusing the same terminology, away from a process that he knows about but doesn't want to talk about...
       Meanwhile, why aren't we trying much harder to find a pollution solution that will clean the earth not destroy it yet still fit with our existing refinery infrastructure right now? A process that can even destroy prion proteins and the people in the know are trying to keep it hidden...?

    •  because, they couldn't make enough money (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      nuclear winter solstice

      at it to support an oligarchy of finance managers and do the advertising and research they needed to do...So they made the obvious decision and dropped the research, leaving themselves with a half-assed batch process and a clear path to bankruptcy.... Now they are back under a new name, and still haven't improved their process. Lather, rinse, repeat.

      "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

      by farmerchuck on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 04:39:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Failure of regulation. (4+ / 0-)

        They were banking on it becoming illegal to put animal parts into animal feed. (To prevent Mad Cow Disease.) Thus the slaughterhouses would pay them to haul off animal parts, which they'd convert to fuel.

        But instead we elected Dubya President, and the new animal-feed regs didn't go into place. So instead of being paid to haul off the animal parts, CWT had to pay for them. Big difference to bottom line.

        CWT was converting sewage to biofuel in Philadelphia for awhile. Is that still happening?

        Atlanta is in the process of spending a few billion $ to rebuild its sewage infrastructure, in return for which they'll get a revenue stream Seems to me that to be viable, the CWT process doesn't actually need to generate a profit. It just has to generate a smaller loss than operating a sewage system that produces no revenue at all.

        "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

        by HeyMikey on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 05:07:15 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Oh, and: greenhouse tax/cap-and-trade. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          nuclear winter solstice

          If the USA had the good sense to institute a greenhouse tax or cap-and-trade plan for fossil fuels, CWT's biofuel would instantly become more profitable.

          Recall that when CWT was ramping up 10 or so years ago, cap-and-trade was a REPUBLICAN proposal. Geez.

          "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

          by HeyMikey on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 05:09:58 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I wish I could believe in such a system (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            HeyMikey, NNadir

            But I look at how the commodities and derivatives markets have worked.  Corrupt as all hell.  I can only see a carbon cap-n-trade as another sandbox for traders to wreak havoc in.

            •  "Scientific American" agrees. (0+ / 0-)

              A year or two ago Scientific American had an article comparing greenhouse-control mechanisms. They concluded that if all worked as they should, cap-and-trade would be best. But they said the political pressure would be too great to grant too many exceptions to cap-and-trade. Thus they endorsed a simple greenhouse tax.

              "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

              by HeyMikey on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 10:21:39 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

        •  I met some members of their board (3+ / 0-)

          and spent some time trying to put together (convince) some hedge fund types to buy their IP. The single biggest problem they had is the money that should have been spent on development went to profit taking. They purchased the patents, and that was the sum extent of their development, for the most part. The technology had potential (and still does)... The backers thought they had a golden goose, so they made kiszka...

          "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

          by farmerchuck on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 05:30:49 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Who stole the kiszka from the butcher shop? (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            [I took ballroom dance in college.  I could never keep a straight face when that Frankie Yancovic song was played]

          •  Their technology is not very special. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            I would be surprised if the patent was immune from invalidation via challenge on the grounds of obviousness.

            I suspect that their real problem involved inorganics, as is discussed in the original paper I cited here.

            Corrosion is always a problem in high temperature systems, particularly those which contain inorganic species.

            I was never really impressed by what they seem to have.   I've read lots about other pilot facilities of this type.

            •  actually it looks like the problems (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              for them were a) amine formation  and b) they were not able to successfully degrade cellulose. I've actually designed a prototype system that is way more functional than theirs, hence my interest in getting someone to purchase the plant and IP. These guy's are the kings of submarine patent games, and have the resources to play those games.

              "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

              by farmerchuck on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 10:21:34 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

        •  and I believe philly is shut down... (3+ / 0-)

          "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

          by farmerchuck on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 05:31:51 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Developing world (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    melo, Syoho, JamieG from Md

    one of the more ingenious projects being used especially in Africa are combined toilet/cooking gas production units for small villages. The human - and animal - waste goes into a digester that generates methane. That is taken off and stored in a flexible 'bladder' and then distributed to the village homes for cooking purposes.

    IIRC this produces far more energy than the commonly used option of burning dried animal dung, saves huge amounts of time in gathering firewood, helps stop deforestation for firewood and provides a sterile fertilizer for food gardens.

    Fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur.

    by Lib Dem FoP on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 03:24:33 AM PST

  •  Preconceived notions-- (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    freerad, JamieG from Md

    that's what's to blame.  Economists start with the preconceived notion that trade and exchange are prompted by demand.  Their focus is on "not enough," so they don't even consider "too much."  In fact, I would argue that trade and exchange are prompted by someone having produced or collected or found too much of a good thing and, having realized that, unused, it will go to waste, determines to get rid of it.  Which leads, basically, to trade and exchange being a waste-avoidance behavior and, conversely, the accumulation of waste being a signal that trade and exchange have failed.  In other words, economic behavior is the alternative of waste.

    Primitive humans, like other organisms, rely on the natural environment to deal with their wastes. This "works" as long as the wastes are organic.  That mother nature can't handle the vast quantities of inorganic wastes humans are able to produce just hasn't registered. The idea conflicts with our preconceived notions.

    That "what man has put together, he should take apart," is an idea that hasn't caught on.  Perhaps reversing the creative process isn't a possibility for people who have no talent but to destroy. Perhaps trade and exchange for mutual support is a sophisticated concept which some humans don't recognize and accounts for them having to rely on predation (wanton destruction) as a default.

    Shit is a waste product.  But, it's not the only one and it probably isn't the most troublesome one.  Humans waste because they don't think long term.

    People to Wall Street: "LET OUR MONEY GO"

    by hannah on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 04:59:41 AM PST

  •  my rule of thumb (0+ / 0-)

    is that a WWTP can produce enough digester gas to support its own operations and little more if at all. Thus, this result is not surprising to me.

    Causation was, is, and ever shall be a slippery bitch, so we're best sticking with noting the facts

    by jam on Tue Dec 27, 2011 at 05:59:24 AM PST

    •  Well this may be obvious to you, and it's always (0+ / 0-)

      certainly been obvious to me, but the magical thinking that always surrounds so called "renewable energy" strategies, as I see them, definitely suggests that it is not obvious to the bulk of the world.

      Basically bioprocessing for the purpose to make energy in any form obviously cannot support any major first world nation's lifestyle, never mind first world lifestyles throughout the world.    This obvious fact however seems to escape most of the world's media, and maybe even most of the world's policy makers.

      It is possible to use some biomass in non-biological processing schemes, essentially thermal schemes, to address a part, a small part, of carbon dioxide waste dumping, and although these proposals are often discussed in the literature, they are not practiced much beyond pilot scale.     It's 2012 (almost) and if these things were going to do something, they're already way too late.

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