So much potential, yet so little uptake15 October 2013
Where sustainability is concerned, the art of the possible is accelerating far faster than the reality of adoption.
It was ever thus: plant operators, managers and engineers are rightly conservative when it comes to new technology. On the one hand, there's a lot at stake; on the other, there's bound to be some investment. And there's the small matter of changing hearts and minds.
Look at DPS Global's 'novel' waste-to-energy process. Its pyrolysis and gasification waste-to-energy plant has its roots in a DEFRA-funded demonstrator project, set in Avonmouth way back in 2000. That proved its capability to destroy even hazardous wastes cost effectively. Yet, despite further development leading to compact variants being installed on the Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Ocean and a couple of containers for US army forward operating bases, commercial uptake has been practically nil.
Currently, the company, working alongside Unilever and Wessex Water, is setting up further trials back in Avonmouth, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their goal: optimising the plant's energy-mass balance to build an appropriate technology solution for Ghana, capable of safely 'burning' sewage sludge and driving gas engines to generate power.
That's great, but why has it taken so long to get virtually nowhere? Given this plant's clear potential to transform, for example, NHS hospital sites' clinical waste, transport and energy efficiency, is it not staggering that no one has jumped at the opportunity? Especially given that many have decommissioned waste incinerators on site, crying out for redevelopment.
As DPS Global's environmental technology manager James Sessions-Hodge says:"Why are they carting all that nasty waste off site, when this technology can treat it safely – and provide energy to provide power and heat?"
It doesn't auger well for the EU-backed All-gas project – the world's largest designed to convert algae into biofuel for clean energy, using only wastewater – which last month announced the successful production of its first crop of algae biomass at Chiclana, in southern Spain.
According to Frank Rogalla, project co-ordinator and FCC Aqualia's director of innovation and technology, the resulting biomass shows a high energy potential, with methane production at 200–300 litres per kilogram when processed by anaerobic digestion. And the process enables wastewater purification to a high standard – also reducing disposal costs and the impact on the environment, too.
Says Rogalla: "This original new approach to bioenergy means that Spain's 40 million population could power 200,000 vehicles every year with a single toilet flush."
Ambitious? Certainly. Realistic? Sadly, no.
Brian Tinham, BSc CEng MInstMC FSOE FIPlantE FIRTE, Editor
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