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Stolen: Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuel

by Joanne Stolen

One of the main problems municipalities have is what to do with all that garbage. Some of that garbage, the organic waste, can be turned into fuel, and back into the nutrients plants need to grow. An article in Innovation Center for US Dairy News features a Dairy Power Summit in Syracuse, New York, with sponsorship from GE Energy. They have set a goal that in 2020, 40 percent of all manure from New York dairy farms will go through the anaerobic digestion process, which captures methane from manure and generates clean, renewable energy. This energy produced from this effort could potentially power 32,000 homes, and it also would reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 500,000 metric tons of carbon, equivalent to taking 100,000 cars off the road.

The technology exists and works. You Tube has numerous sites describing how organic waste can be converted into electricity. This technology is being used in a number of countries worldwide now. China has the goal of having 50 percent of fuel in the future from renewable energy. Biogas digesters are actually quite simple to make, and small digesters can be made for individual family or small scale use, to large facilities or plants.

We in Summit County in conjunction with Vail Resorts ECHO program are recycling organic waste (food scraps) from the schools and Vail Resorts facilities. Hopefully, the restaurants and individuals will join in, too. The waste is being composted at the Summit County Landfill. This is certainly a step in the right direction. The soil generated from the compost can then be used in the planned greenhouse projects. Biogas digesters can also be used to heat the greenhouses.

What digests the waste into fuel and compost? It is microorganisms; mostly bacteria and fungi. I mentioned before in an article that “microbes rule!” Under optimal conditions, composting proceeds through three phases. Initial decomposition is carried out by mesophilic microorganisms, which rapidly break down the soluble, readily degradable compounds. The heat they produce causes the compost temperature to rapidly rise. As the temperature rises above about 40°C, the mesophilic microorganisms become less competitive and are replaced by others that are thermophilic, or heat-loving. At temperatures of 55°C and above, many microorganisms that are human or plant pathogens are destroyed. Because temperatures over about 65°C kill many forms of microbes and limit the rate of decomposition, aeration and mixing keep the temperature below this point. During the thermophilic phase, high temperatures accelerate the breakdown of proteins, fats, and complex carboydrates like cellulose, the major structural molecules in plants. As the supply of these high-energy compounds becomes exhausted, the compost temperature gradually decreases and mesophilic microorganisms once again take over for the final phase of “curing” or maturation of the remaining organic matter.

When the process is done in the absence of oxygen – or anerobically – then methane gas is produced. Anaerobic decomposition is a two-stage process as specific bacteria feed on certain organic materials. In the first stage, acidic bacteria dismantle the complex organic molecules, then a second type of bacteria starts to convert these simpler compounds into methane. In nature, the methane in the form of swamp gas or biogas is almost identical to the natural gas pumped out of the ground by the oil companies, so let’s take advantage of the natural process to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuel.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.


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