Californian says garbage a cure for energy woes

New technology more likely to be employed on Mars than in Iqaluit



New technology promises to transform plain old garbage into a clean, green fuel source.

Sound fanciful?

Perhaps. But of all the ideas floated at a conference on adapting to climate change, held in Iqaluit last week, it’s certainly the most interesting.

After all, if there’s one abundant resource in Nunavut’s communities, it’s garbage.

Municipal waste piles high in many hamlet landfills. In Pangnirtung, the hamlet resorts to burning garbage, which means acrid, stinky smoke wafts into the community. That doesn’t help attract tourists.

In Iqaluit, the dump is expected to reach capacity in several years, and no new landfill site has yet been selected.

Meanwhile, Nunavut’s communities are powered entirely by diesel fuel generators, which produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Fred Schwartz, and environmental consultant from Berkeley, California, says garbage could become a clean source of fuel, thanks to a process called “steam reforming.”

Steam reforming takes garbage and, by placing it under an enormous amount of heat and pressure, reduces it into a synthetic, hydrogen-rich gas.

“It doesn’t burn to create the gas. It vapourizes the waste,” Schwartz says.

That gas can then be burned as a fuel source. The result, Schwartz says, is a “neutral” effect on the environment.

Or the gas could be broken into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Then the hydrogen could be used in fuel cells, which produce no emissions, except water.

Steam reforming is used to do away with the nastiest types of garbage: radioactive waste, lab animals used in pharmaceutical tests and waste from hospitals. It’s used to eliminate most of America’s medical waste.

For the last year, a company Schwartz works for, called Intellergy Corp., studied whether the same technique could turn the garbage tossed from homes and into landfills into a clean energy source.

Pilot projects have processed five tonnes of waste a day, he says. While the process uses 180 kilowatts of energy, it produces between 350-400 kilowatts worth of clean fuel, plus residual heat.

“It’s an extremely good fit up here,” Schwarz says. “It’s a perfect candidate for a climate change type technology.”

He estimates building a facility would cost about $3 million, “but the pay back would be pretty quick.”

The technology is likely too experimental to be considered by any Nunavut communities soon, especially given the long history of untested technologies that have been tried, and failed, in the Arctic – such as Iqaluit’s $7 million sewage treatment plant that never worked.

Michele Bertol, the City of Iqaluit’s director of lands and planning, says the city can’t afford to try anything too risky, but it also can’t continue as it is, cramming all waste into the landfill.

“It’s a balance,” she said.

In the meantime, Schwartz has been approached by NASA to consider how the technology could be used on a Mars colony, he said.

“They asked, what would sustainability look like in Mars?”

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