Tag Archives: methane

A Stinky Subject

This isn’t about sex, murder, war, politics, or Donald Trump, so if that’s all that interests you, you may as well stop reading now.  It’s about landfill gas recapture and utilization, a subject that makes my engineering friends yawn but fascinates me.

It links my interests in environmental toxins, garbage disposal, and multi-purpose innovation to address commonly acknowledged problems.  While the political scientists debate whether the Earth is undergoing “climate change” and, if so, whether humankind is causing it, I’m looking at litter in the streets; noting the extraordinary growth of plastic and single use packaging; and throwing away heaps of junk mail in post office recycling bins.  At least the PO has recycling bins, a forward shift in consciousness, according to me, within the past ten years.  Not only does the post office subsidize this mountain of murdered trees by reduced rates, but my various alma maters and professional organizations are the worst perpetrators of this global plot to deforest the planet and speed up the global warming agenda.  One would think the ivory-tower elitists would be the first to rail against this glut of self-serving propaganda, but alas, they can’t afford to support their tenured positions and building campaigns with mere tuitions.  They must perpetually dun their graduates—and their graduates’ offspring—for money, if only to prove how cost-ineffective and eco-unfriendly they are.

So, rather than spend money supporting those who can’t support themselves, I choose to educate myself without cost in ways to reduce all my problems and the world’s problems at the same time.  A tall order, perhaps, and maybe a futile one, considering the stinky subject of landfill.  Nobody wants to touch it, unless, of course they can get government funding.

To get government funding, one is obliged to package the idea in terms that make the government look good.  For instance, did you know the United States has 2000 regulated landfills, the most in the world?  By 2006, the US generated 413 million tons of municipal solid waste, and 64% went into landfill.  70 percent of this was composed of food, paper, and corrugated cardboard, and 15 percent was of petrochemicals, mostly plastic.

Biogas, including carbon dioxide and methane, are emitted from decomposition of organic materials in landfill.  Aerobic decomposition of waste generally leads to the production of carbon dioxide (CO2), and anaerobic decomposition produces methane (CH4). Methane is also known as natural gas. MSW (municipal solid waste) landfill gas is comprised of 45-60% methane and 40-60% CO2.

Methane is believed to be at least 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its global warming effects.  About 50 million tons of methane are generated annually by municipal solid waste, but only 5 million tons are captured.

Landfills generate a maximum of methane at five years, then the amount begins to decline.  Landfill gas utilization is a process by which methane is captured and used to generate electricity or heat, or upgraded for inclusion in commercial natural gas products.  In 2006, there were 325 landfills in the US that collected biogas, up from 231 in 1999.  California had the most:  65 landfill gas facilities, followed by Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In 2001, there were 955 landfills that recovered biogas, with the most in the United States, followed by Germany and the United Kingdom.  In the United Kingdom, the number of facilities went from 329 in 2005 to 519 in 2009.

There are two methods for capture of methane from landfill, closed and open capture.  Closed capture refers to gas extraction from landfills that have been closed and can be capped.  It is considered more efficient than capture from open landfills, at 84% and 67% respectively.  Methods for capture including drilling wells either vertically or horizontally.  Equipment needed for utilization depends on the size of the landfill.  Smaller facilities can employ reciprocating engines; medium-sized facilities can use turbines; and steam cycles are used for the largest deposits.

General Motors has significantly reduced its energy costs by using landfill gas to power some of its production facilities.  As of August, 2016, the General Motors Orion plant in the Orion Township of Michigan boasted that landfill gas was supplying 54% of its electricity.  The gas comes from two open landfills nearby, owned by Waste Management and Republic Services, respectively.  The GM plant also has a 350 kW solar array.

There are incentives from the Treasury Department, Department of Energy, the Agriculture Department, and the Department of Commerce for landfill gas extraction.  Landfill gas is considered a renewable form of energy.  The US EPA operates a landfill Methane Outreach Program.

Opponents of landfill gas utilization include such organizations as the Energy Justice Network, which claims that landfill gas has contaminants that are either inherently toxic or combine into toxic substances when burned.  Although “non-methane organic compounds” (NMOCs) comprise less than one percent of landfill gas, there are also non-organic toxic substances, such as mercury and tritium, in minute amounts.  Also, when halogens–like chlorine, fluorine, and bromine– are combusted with hydrocarbons, they can produce dioxins and furans, some of the most toxic substances known.  While other sources state that a burning temperature of 850 degrees centigrade can destroy dioxins, Energy Justice Network claims these can be re-formed in the cooling process.

At the same time, Energy Justice Network admits that methane is responsible for 10.6 percent of global warming from US human sources, with 35.8 percent of this from landfill gas.  It also claims that if landfill gas is to be utilized for energy, boilers offer the safest mode, with turbines, then internal combustion engines less desirable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Political Climate Change

I’ve followed the “global warming,” then the “climate change” controversy for a number of years and have a number of reservations about the terms being used, the focus on “greenhouse gases,” and the almost religious fervor “climate scientists” adopt when pushing their agenda.

I’m an amateur scientist, at best, a “life scientist,” who still believes observation is the best science there is.  I can’t deny the environment is changing, becoming de-vitalized, and I also believe mankind plays a significant role.  That and other transgressions against fellow man and nature have made me ashamed to be human. I look to my pets and nature to restore my belief that nature will survive, even if humans poison or nuke themselves out of existence.  It may take awhile, and the earth may generate a variety of mutant life forms, but nature will win in the end. Best to make a friend of her.

While I am no scientist, I’ve taken more undergraduate and post graduate science courses than most Americans have.  I’ve taken biology, botany, inorganic and organic chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and a variety of medical science courses. I’ve done published research, too.  The last showed me the limitations of the “scientific method,” which assumes cause and effect and must control for variables. The primary rule in Western scientific research is that you can have no more than one variable.  You begin with a hypothesis that you want to prove or disprove.  You “control” for variables, meaning you have a treatment group and a “control group.” In other words, you create artificial circumstances to suit your study design and outcome you want or expect.

Contrast this with the Oriental pattern-based approach, which embraces variables and looks for patterns among them.  The presumption is nature is composed of interactive processes that enhance or mitigate each other.  Everything is connected in a large, multi-dimensional web.

When it comes to the environment, it’s impossible to limit research to one variable and determine cause and effect.  We know what came before, and we use computer models to predict what will come next.  We want to attribute causes to “climate change,” and have focused on CO2 and other “greenhouse gases,” specifically methane/natural gas (CH4).

I contend this is too simplistic.  First we are technically at the end of an ice age, so planetary warming is at least partly natural.  Carbon is the basic building block of life, an element, that can combine with many other atoms to create a variety of molecules.  The difference between inorganic and organic chemistry is based on whether the substance under study has carbon.  Methane/natural gas is the simplest hydro-carbon there is.  It is part of the life-cycle, and every decaying life form produces it.  Cow farts (which have been blamed for adding to greenhouse gases) and human farts all contain methane, as do other life form farts.  It rises from the marsh and from landfill.

Carbon dioxide, CO2, the demonized poster child of the “climate science” religion, is the chief nutrient of plant photosynthesis, the process that combines carbon from the air with light to create food for the plant, and thus for every creature that eats plants.  Carbon dioxide comprises significantly less than one percent of the atmosphere.  By comparison, oxygen makes up 21 percent.  If carbon dioxide is the primary culprit in climate change, then overpopulation, with more people exhaling CO2 and farting methane, is a significant factor in the production of greenhouse gases CO2 and methane.

No one of the scientists has addressed the fact that burning one molecule of methane/natural gas (CH4) produces two molecules of water for every one of CO2. Apparently none of the computer models programmed to track carbon emissions and predict climate change factors in the enormous amount of water added to the environment with the burning of fossil fuels.  Water vapor is another “greenhouse gas” in fact, as anyone who has ever visited a greenhouse knows.  What is the effect of cloud cover on the earth below?  What is the effect of all the mass of buildings, highways, and parking lots?  These have replaced forests and fields, which played a role in keeping the earth cool and absorbing rainwater before it flooded.  Has anyone accounted for the thermals (vortexes of hot air rising from cities) creating fronts that change weather patterns all around?

The Industrial Revolution begun with the cheap abundance of coal and is intricately intertwined with its advance.  This closely followed major other changes in paradigms, specifically Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, and the subsequent mechanistic view of the universe.  The mechanistic paradigm brought “determinism,” which separated life (and god) from science.  The idea that the universe functions like a machine, with everything governed by knowable physical laws, contradicted the Biblical presumption of free will.

We have made a quantum leap from Newtonian physics with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.  At the atomic and subatomic level, there is enormous variation and spontaneity within a larger order.  All of a sudden, free will becomes scientifically valid again, the experimenter does influence the experiment by expectation or desire, and cause-and-effect paradigms begin to lose relevance.

I’m more concerned about the effects of environmental toxins than the buildup of greenhouse gases.  The industrial revolution has led to unsustainable levels of toxic waste in air, water, and land, and we continue to dump poisons way worse than carbon dioxide into the world environment.  We are poisoning ourselves along with the insects, but insects reproduce faster and develop immunity quicker than human beings do.  Plastic, also containing hydrocarbon chains, release toxic chemicals, especially when heated, that Americans blithely drink in their bottled water.  We’re increasingly afraid of tap water because of contaminants in pipes and groundwater that we’re only beginning to recognize.

Yes, we are devitalizing and perhaps even killing the earth, but we need to broaden our scope to look at multi-factorial contributors.  It’s not a government problem to solve.  We should look to ourselves as individuals, a nation of excess and waste. Don’t depend too much on salaried scientists, whose primary obligation is to their government, university, and corporate employers.  They agree with each other in finding simple targets and ignoring the greater industrial pollution that continues as fast as it can generate profits on Wall Street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The View from Below

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I shoveled the dock steps the other day.  This was part of my latest health initiative, with the purpose of swimming in the river.

Now, most people don’t have a dock or concrete steps to a polluted river where they can swim.  Most people haven’t grown up on said river and watched it change gradually over the past 60 or so years.  It is a blessing and a curse.

While doing this mundane labor, which with clean-up took about two hours, I had time to ponder many worldwide concerns.  First, I listened to the constant buzz of helicopters at Hunter Army Airfield, only a couple of miles–as the helicopter flies–from my house.  There were also military aircraft flying overhead, as I live only 28 degrees off Hunter’s flight paths, and those planes fly low, low, low over my head. This reminded me that the US is engaged in perpetual wars, and I live in a war zone, what with the strong military presence loud, clear, and constant.

Next, I thought about the Clean Water Act of 1972, when the Army Corps of Engineers got jurisdiction over all “wetlands” including the “hydrophytic” marsh that surrounds my small spit of land.  I wondered if the AC of E would fine me for taking mud off the steps and depositing it in the center of my land, which is mine but not mine in that I pay property taxes but can’t modify it.  This spit of land has been sliding into the river for years and now becomes flooded in spring and fall tides.  The channels in the area are also filling in, because no one dredges them anymore, even though the drainage ditches are perpetually clogged and contribute to frequent, severe flooding in Savannah.

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The local movers and shakers would prefer to dump poisonous malathion by helicopter on the entire ecosystem than drain the bogs where mosquitoes breed. That the Army Corps of Engineers pays Chatham County to control mosquitoes, yet operates the largest mosquito habitat in two states does not seem important to anyone but me.  That the dredge material from current harbor deepening project will increase the mosquito habitat at this international port presents no red flags to those who are developing vaccines for mosquito-borne disease but are blithely nonchalant about the cushy habitat they are creating.

This brings me home to the polluted river, which still has fish and shrimp, but not as many as in my childhood.  I figure if fish can swim in it, so can I.  I’ve been stomping around, crabbing, shrimping, boating, water skiing, and swimming in that water since I can remember, so know it well.  While shoveling, I thought about “climate change,” and the claim that the oceans are rising.  I also remembered reading about how land is washing into the oceans and wondered if the oceanic rise is relative to the land’s sinking, in a leveling out that would lead to the oceans’ getting shallower. Shallow water heats more quickly than deep water, as any swimmer knows, and holds more heat, so this could explain some of the climatic changes.

So then I thought about President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and wondered whether it makes any difference in the long run.  I’ve never been a fan of government solutions to government-supported problems, like the fact that deforestation is a major contributor to climate change.  I don’t believe in paying corporations not to cut trees (as in “carbon credits”) and would prefer instead to reduce demand for paper, like junk mail and single-use packaging.  International Paper, the owner of primo rain forest in South America, and a huge polluter of the Savannah River and air, does not recycle paper.

That got me to thinking about the enormous amount of methane produced by the marsh, the fact that methane and natural gas are the same thing, and that Germany is the world’s leader in recycling (70%).  In addition, Germany has to import garbage to fuel its waste-to-energy plants that provide so much of its heat and electricity. There is also new technology to capture methane produced by landfill, but the US lags behind places like China in its adoption of these promising technologies.  No wonder Angela Merkel was frustrated by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord. Germany is the world leader in sustainability, and should be so acknowledged.

So, Donald Trump may believe coal gives the US a financial advantage, but this is short-sighted.  Apparently China is the largest purchaser of US coal exports, but China built 431 waste-to-energy plants in 2016, so it may not need our coal much longer.  With the reduced cost of solar, India is also going greener.  China is the biggest carbon-emission nation in the world, and the US is second.  Russia is third, and India fourth, according to Google 2011 data.  Americans probably generate the most waste, though, 4.5 pounds of garbage per person per day, and recycling has decreased, now down to about 30 percent.

So, while I solved my personal problem of how to swim without getting mud between my toes and oyster shell cuts on my feet, I also solved a lot of world problems, and I never had to leave home.

 

 

 

 

Chemistry Quiz

  1. What is the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry?
  2. What is this molecule?

                           CH4

3.  What is this molecule?

                           CH3-CH2-OH

Answers:

1.  The difference between organic and inorganic chemistry is carbon. Carbon (C) is the basic building block of life, thus “organic chemistry”. Everything that lives or has ever lived contains it.  Carbon dioxide (CO2), considered a “greenhouse gas” in today’s parlance, is part of the natural life cycle, exhaled by human beings and animals, used by plants for growth.  The earth’s atmosphere is composed of 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen.  The remaining one percent consists chiefly of argon, with extremely small amounts of other gases.  Carbon dioxide, then, constitutes significantly less than one percent of the earth’s atmosphere.

Green plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen in “photosynthesis,” a process involving chemical reactions, using the sun as an energy source.

Life is an organizing force which defies “entropy.” “Entropy” has several definitions, but it is generally perceived as the ultimate degradation of matter and energy in the universe toward patternless conformity, degradation, disorder, and death.  However, the organizing force of life concentrates the energy in the living or dead organism.  Wood, coal, oil, and natural gas are examples of stored energy sources derived from living or formerly living organisms.

2.  If you answered that CH4 is methane, you would be right. Methane is another so-called “greenhouse gas.” It is produced by all living and decaying organisms.  It is the simplest molecule in organic chemistry, consisting of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms.  Everything from marshlands to landfill, from animal waste to human farts, add methane to the atmosphere.

If you answered that CH4 is natural gas, you would also be right.  This is why natural gas is considered the cleanest fuel of all, because it produces no toxic by-products.  The chemical reaction for natural gas when used for energy production is:

CH4 + 2O2 + flame = CO2 + 2H2O

Translated, this means that one methane molecule plus two oxygen molecules plus heat of combustion generates one carbon dioxide molecule and two water molecules. Thus, burning natural gas generates twice as much water as carbon dioxide.

If you are considering “greenhouse gases,” you must recognize that water (steam) is a potent one. The cloud cover of the earth has the effect of trapping heat inside the atmosphere.

You will note that “climate change scientists” want to reduce CH4 levels, but oil and gas companies want to capture and sell CH4 in the “global economy.” They are using “fracking” and other techniques to extract CH4 from trapped deposits in the earth.

3.  If you answer that CH3-CH2-OH is whiskey, you would be right. Whiskey is a distilled alcohol, usually from grain, such as rye and maize or corn. It is also distilled from barley.  Corn liquor was an early American product and used in bartering by cash-strapped farmers to pay bills.  George Washington was a large-scale whiskey distiller.  In his later years, he made most of his money from the distilling business.  Distilleries are examples of “economic narrows” that operate as toll gates between producer and retail purchaser.  Washington and Alexander Hamilton conspired to enact the “Whiskey Tax” in 1791 to undermine the bartering system and replace it with a cash-based system that could be more easily taxed. (Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow, 2007) This led to the infamous Whiskey Rebellion, in which Washington betrayed the farmers who had fought in the Revolution (thereby neglecting their farms) and were going bankrupt because of debt, taxes, and the devaluation of the Continental dollar, after the new United States currency was introduced.

If you answer that CH3-CH2-OH is ethanol (or ethyl alcohol), you would also be right.  The 2007 Congressional mandate to blend gasoline with at least 10% ethanol proved a boon for Archer Daniels Midland and other corporate giants, which benefitted mightily from the mandate, through tax breaks, other ethanol subsidies, and price supports.

It must be remembered that “farmers” and the “farming industry” are not the same. In fact, “farmers,” as we perceive them, are being displaced in large numbers by corporate mega-farms.  The corporate “farming industry” has significant political clout through donations to both major parties.  They also have armies of lobbyists, lawyers, and friends in federal and state regulatory agencies like the USDA and EPA.  They are the major beneficiaries of federal and state mandates, subsidies, and price supports.  They have their fingers in every point of the farm to table (or vehicle) distribution chain, including storage, distilleries, commodities futures markets, transportation (ADM Trucking is a subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland), and global sales.

In this election year, while the media and public are focusing on the presidential candidates, let us not forget that the entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate are up for grabs. Whatever anyone thinks of Donald Trump, we must admit he is a game-changer.  His grass roots appeal is showing the power of the people to make a significant difference in how the game is played.  We may be moving closer to a true democracy, by default, as the “ruling elite” of the two-party system desperately tries to recapture its “market share” of public trust and acceptance.

Yes, the individual can make a difference, whether at the national or local level. If that individual is informed well enough ask the right questions of all candidates, from local to national levels, and to demand informed answers, we might wrest a revolution in consciousness from this circus of political psychodrama.

So far, Ted Cruz is the only presidential candidate who has come out against the ethanol mandate, but he has begun to waffle under political pressure from the “farm lobby” and others. Hillary Clinton does not seem to know the difference between natural gas and methane.  She is not alone.  It is frightening to think that so many people with zero knowledge of science are in positions to write and pass legislation mandating, regulating, and subsidizing industries that affect us all and to such a great extent.

It probably doesn’t matter much who becomes president. The real power is in Congress, which has the power to repeal stupid legislation, like the ethanol mandate.  Especially now that there’s a worldwide oil glut—one of the premiere reasons for passing the mandate—it’s especially good timing to revisit that law and its consequences.