Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Latest from: CleanTechnica

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‘Shrooms Can Clean Oil-Tainted Soil

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 06:15 PM PST

university of montreal researchers use mushrooms to clean polluted soilA microscopic mushroom that laps up oil like a thirsty puppy could provide a cheap, efficient way to clean up polluted soil, according to researchers at the University of Montreal. If the research bears out, the discovery could add another item to the growing stockpile of phytoremediation tools — plants that can be deployed to remove toxic substances from soil and groundwater through natural processes, without the enormous carbon footprint involved in traditional cleanup methods.

What’s Wrong with Traditional Clean-Up Methods?

Conventional cleanups for polluted soil generally involve the expenditure of vast amounts of energy.  A typical project might involve excavating contaminated soil out of one site and dumping it in another, or  pumping large quantities of contaminated water through treatment plants. In recent years the trend has been to find ways of getting rid of the pollution without shifting soil and water around, and that’s where the ‘shrooms come in.

Helping Plants Suck Pollutants Out of Soil

Conventional phytoremediation involves using hardy plants to suck up pollutants from soil as they grow. Substances such as heavy metals can then be removed by harvesting the plants, which can be incinerated (or perhaps some day, used as feedstock for biofuels). The Montreal project involves a new twist, which is to enhance the work of the plants by spiking the soil with bacteria and microfungi. A member of the research team, biochemistry professor B. Franz Lang, explains that “it isn’t the plant doing most of the work, it’s the microorganisms i.e. the mushrooms and bacteria accompanying the root.”  The team has performed tests using willow shoots, which grow rapidly and have deep roots, and the next phase of the research involves finding the most efficient combination of plants with mushrooms and bacteria.

Willow Trees, Corn Stalks and Phytoremediation

The Canadian project is similar to another promising phytoremediation project under way in Michigan’s “Copper Country,” parts of which have been described as a moonscape. In this project, researchers have spiked pots of regular soil with a bacteria that they found thriving in areas heavily contaminated with waste from abandoned copper mines. Corn planted in the pots would normally do poorly, but in the presence of the bacteria the corn grew robustly and absorbed the copper. Future steps will involve moving the process out of the greenhouse, and planting corn at actual contaminated sites (like willow, corn is a popular phytoremediation plant because it grows rapidly and produces a relatively large amount of biomass).

For more information on phytoremediation and other emerging low cost, energy efficient waste cleanup strategies, check out the U.S. EPA’s website.

Image: Mushroom, some rights reserved by wwarby.

Follow on Twitter: @TinaMCasey



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More Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Actually Kills Jobs

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 02:11 PM PST

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Operation

A Think Progress writer wrote an interesting and (in my case) eye-opening piece about mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).

There has been an ongoing battle between environmentalists and coal mining companies because the coal companies want to utilize lower cost mountain top removal mining, but environmentalists are concerned about the coal that is scattered into water bodies and into the air by the explosives that are used to blow the coal mountaintops off.

This is seen and portrayed (by CNN, for example) as an environment vs jobs issue, as if mountaintop removal coal mining has economic benefits. Some people in West Virginia, for example, are aggressively defending mountaintop removal mining because they think that allowing it causes coal companies to create jobs.

From their point of view, the initiation of a mountaintop removal operation results in the companies hiring people to help carry out that mountaintop removal and mining process (notice the emphasis on the word help,.. you’ll figure it out later). To them, this is a win.

Mountaintop Removal Mining is the Opposite of What Supporters Think It Is

In reality, mountaintop removal mining is actually a loss for the economy overall, and I will explain why:

Mountaintop removal mining involves using bombs to blast off mountaintops to expose coal so that it can be removed easily at the surface instead of burrowing underground to get it.

This mining method hardly requires any employees to extract massive amounts of coal. While this may sound good at first, it translates into fewer jobs. According to the National Mining Association, mountaintop removal mining projects involve hiring 1/3 of the people who would normally be hired for traditional underground mining!

According to Think Progress, the fact that the EPA has been cracking down on mountaintop removal mining has forced the utilization of traditional labour-intensive mining operations, leading to a net increase in coal industry job creation — it was boosted to a 15 year high.

Mountaintop removal is just another way for the rich to get richer while they pull jobs away from the rest of us.

I will try to keep my eye on the status of MTR and update you if I hear anything interesting.

Source: Think Progress and NMA | Photo Credit: IdaStewie

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Thorium is More Abundant than Uranium, but Can It Work?

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 01:46 PM PST

I have heard people tout thorium as the nuclear fuel of the future, and that it is cheaper, safer, and more abundant than uranium due to it’s extremely high density, but, first, you need to understand what the economic problem with traditional (uranium) nuclear reactors is.

According to MIT’s future of nuclear power 2009 analysis, the cost to construct uranium nuclear reactors has been increasing at a rate of 15% since 2002 and they also pointed out that most of the cost of nuclear electricity is the cost to construct the nuclear reactor(s). According to the same MIT analysis I mentioned above, the cost of nuclear power increased from 6.7 cents per kWh in 2002 to 8.4 cents per kWh in 2009.

According to MIT, most of the cost of nuclear electricity is actually the cost to construct the nuclear reactors (capital cost), not the fuel. Nuclear power plants have a high capital cost and low fuel cost. Even I was surprised to learn that at first since the fuel is so expensive. But this is because nuclear reactors consume very little fuel.

Most power plants (excluding, solar, wind, and geothermal) are the opposite, financially. They have a low capital cost, and a very high fuel cost (due to high fuel consumption).

My main point is that in order for thorium-fueled power plants to be considerably cheaper, their capital cost would have to be considerably lower than that of traditional uranium reactors. If not, they could only be marginally cheaper, because, as I said, most of the cost of nuclear electricity is the capital cost of the plant.

Other factors to take into consideration are how much fuel thorium reactors consume. If they consume much more than traditional reactors, then the relatively low cost of thorium would not be able to solve the problem.

Potential benefits of using thorium:

  • Even though most of the cost of nuclear electricity is the capital cost of the plant, 30% of the cost is fuel and maintenance, so don’t rule out the importance of the lower fuel cost.
  • If thorium reactors are as safe as proponents claim they are, they may not need to be constructed like fortresses as traditional reactors are to contain disasters and radiation. Fortresses are very expensive.
  • Some thorium can be obtained as a byproduct of rare earth material mining of monazite. This has a sustainability advantage, since obtaining thorium from it requires no additional mining, which can be environmentally destructive and comes with a financial cost as well.

Read more about the thorium fuel cycle here.

Have more info on thorium, like whether or not the waste created really is insignificant, and whether or not the capital costs really are much lower than traditional nuclear plants? Please fill us in.

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Photo Credit: hige-darumaひげだるまattractive woman Version

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Trash Gas for Trash Trucks

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 11:43 AM PST

This landfill converts methane to LNG

Earth's natural resources grow increasingly more limited every day, but humanity's consumption guarantees an abundance of one unlikely  "resource." A typical American throws out about four pounds of trash per day, adding up to more than 240 million tons of U.S. waste every year. Most of that garbage winds up in landfills and releases methane as it decomposes. But what if that gas could be harnessed as a clean energy source for vehicles?

energyNOW! correspondent Peter Standring visited a California landfill to see how one waste disposal company is turning trash from landfills into clean-burning fuel for trash trucks. The full segment is available below:

Waste Management, Inc, (WM) operates the largest waste removal trucking fleet in North America, about 22,000 vehicles, but the company thinks trash gas from its landfills can significantly reduce its environmental footprint. Converting trash to clean fuel isn't a new idea – the EPA says landfill gas currently powers more than a million homes. What is new, however, are WM's efforts to use the technology to reduce oil use and lower emissions.

The initiative centers on WM's Altamont Landfill, one of the largest in California. It runs around the clock, every day, and receives an average of 5,000 tons of garbage each day. That's a lot of trash – and a lot of fuel. More than a thousand of WM's California trash trucks run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) harvested from landfills. "This year we did not buy one single diesel vehicle,' said Scott Germann, a WM fleet manager. "They're all natural gas."

Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, and landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the U.S. Federal law requires landfill operators to destroy 75 percent of the methane they produce, but at Altamont 93 percent of the methane is captured and converted to energy. "We can take what could be a bad thing for the environment and completely turn it around to make it an excellent thing for the environment," said Jessica Jones, a WM engineer.

The process is relatively simple. WM installed nearly 200 wells across the landfill, and each well contains perforated pipes to pull up methane through a vacuum system. The captured gas then travels through a network of pipes to a processing plant, where it is dried and scrubbed of unwanted gases. The purified methane is cooled to -260 degrees, turned into a liquid, pumped into transfer trucks, and sent to regional distribution locations.

WM currently produces 13,000 gallons of LNG from the Altamont landfill every day, and it burns with 80-90 percent less carbon emissions than diesel fuel. That's a positive step for state regulators. "A well-to-wheels calculation of the carbon intensity of the fuel as delivered is very, very low compared to any other alternative," said Commissioner Peter Ward of the California Energy Commission.

While trash gas is better for the environment, it does require significant investment. The Altamont trash gas conversion plant cost more than $15 million to build. But it also represents a significant opportunity to cut oil consumption. "When you start looking at the numbers, LNG from landfill gas has the potential to displace millions of gallons of petroleum fuel," said Richard Battersby of the East Bay Clean Cities Coalition.

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Startup to Capture Lithium from Geothermal Power Plants

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 07:14 AM PST

A startup company called Simbol Materials believes it can increase the domestic (U.S) production of lithium by capturing it, in addition to zinc and manganese, from the brine used by geothermal power plants.

The brine mentioned is actually a very hot fluid that is pumped from a hot area deep in the earth’s crust, and the heat it contains is used to boil water to produce steam.

A geothermal power plant is a form of steam power plant (although it doesn’t have to be steam-powered).

Demand for lithium is expected to increase due to increasing demand for portable electronics, such as laptops, cell phones, and iPads, and more, as well as anticipated increases in hybrid and electric vehicle demand.

You may be concerned when you find that elemental lithium is rare, but please note that is not where the lithium for li-ion batteries is obtained. It is extracted from non-elemental lithium compounds (not pure lithium), such as lithium carbonate, lithium brine, hectorite clay, lithium hydroxide, and other sources.

In the 1990′s, the U.S produced 75% of the world’s lithium carbonate, and now it produces only 5% of it. This is partially due to the fact that the U.S does not produce it as cheaply as Chile does. And this could be due to multiple reasons, one of them being low wages. Wages and salaries are an important part of the cost of production, and in some economies, such as the Chinese and Chilean ones, workers are sometimes paid extremely low wages,.. an unfortunate way to lower the cost of products.

Mining, in general, has at least some environmental impact, but due to the fact that geothermal power plants pump lithium containing fluid up from underground anyway, it is an environmentally (and possibly economically) wise idea to obtain lithium, manganese, and zinc from that fluid, as it reduces the need for mining.

Another idea is to cut the cost of both geothermal power (in areas where it would normally be too expensive) and lithium by also using the power plant as a lithium production facility, so the money invested in the plant could also be stretched to facilitate lithium, manganese, and zinc production.

Who knows what’s next — someone may even use the wasted heat from geothermal steam engines to heat water.

h/t: Technology Review | Photo Credit: Simbol Materials

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Too Cheap for Our Own Good

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 07:05 AM PST

too cheap

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while — now seems to be the time. It’s more about American culture, or perhaps human nature, than anything else. It is most certainly an issue everywhere, but I don’t think there’s a country on earth where it’s a bigger problem than in the U.S.

For some reason, we seem to be obsessed with thinking about the prices of things before almost everything else. Not in all situations — humongous iPad sales show that cool is still a big factor in some cases as well. Paying $10,000 more a year for a car when you could bike or use transit instead is another example of an exception to the rule. But, generally speaking, when we consider something, we focus on price first. You may think this makes sense, but in many situations, I think it’s clear that it doesn’t.

First of all, price IS NOT cost. For example, the price of solar may be higher than the price of coal today (note: for some, it may actually be cheaper already — look into it), but the cost of solar is lower for most or all of us. Why? Because the price of coal does not include the billions or trillions in health costs attributed to coal. It does not include other environmental costs. It does not include the cost of suffering from coal-related cancers. It does not include the cost of suffering from climate-change-related disasters. It does not include the rising cost of food from climate-change-related ‘natural’ disasters.

The same goes for electric vehicles over gas-powered vehicles now.

The same goes for the cost of healthy versus unhealthy food.

But, we choose to be polluted. We choose to get cancers. We choose to have less national security and sacrifice the lives of our fellow citizens rather than change our transportation options.

Basically, we seem to be too bad at examining costs (and our government doesn’t do enough to adequately adjust the price of products to internalize health, national security, environmental, and other costs) for our own good.

Just putting it on the individual today, though, it’s our own responsibility to do a little research and choose a better life for ourselves — one with less suffering and disease, and one with more quantifiable and unquantifiable net benefits.

Aside from putting a cost on things like clean air, clean water, and a healthy body, it also makes sense to acknowledge that some such things cannot truly have a price tag — they are necessities for a “good” life. They are a base need. How can we say it makes more sense to burn coal today since it’s slightly cheaper, while people suffer and die every day from the horrible effects of coal mining and the burning of coal?

And one more thing: we often make a big deal of price without thinking about where that extra money we’re paying goes. Does it go towards creating more jobs, rather than sending more money into a highly automated industry in which the rich are getting richer? Does it go towards local, small-scale businesses versus giant multi-nationals, industrial farms, or hostile countries where the citizens and leaders hate you? Spending money isn’t only about you, it’s also about who or what you support….

I know some readers (and commenters) sometimes get frustrated when we focus on the price of solar or wind versus coal or nuclear sometimes. I certainly get a little frustrated having to write in those terms sometimes, and appreciate the reminders to look beyond price. But I think the truth of the matter is, we’ve got two issues to tackle — 1) we need to try to get people to see and incorporate more of the costs of dirty energy more often, since that already makes renewable energy a better option (and since people do think in money terms so much), and 2) we need to promote the idea that everything isn’t about money, since we have basic necessities and even desires that trump a small difference in the price of one option over another.

These are things I think I do every day, but once in a while it’s good to spell that out rather than imply it or stick a few lines into a story about another topic.

Take home point: don’t be too cheap for your own good.

Image via SS&SS

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LED Lighting to Capture 52% of Commercial Building Market by 2021

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 01:54 AM PST

Commercial LEDs

“LEDs represent perhaps the most significant breakthrough of the last 130 years in lighting technology.” – Eric Bloom

Pike Research forecasts LED lighting will capture 52% of the Commercial Building Market by 2021 as the price of light-emitting diodes continues to decline. Furthermore, they expect the lighting industry to see more change in the next five years than in the previous 50, comparing the rise of LED popularity to the commercialization of the fluorescent lamp in the 1930s.

Currently, the market share for LEDs is quite low due to higher initial costs and a longer payback period. However, Pike anticipates the cost of LED solid state lighting products will be reduced by 80-90% over the next decade, making LEDs a more viable option for typical commercial applications.

Market share for LEDs will come at the expense of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting, and general linear fluorescents. Research analyst,Eric Bloom believes that "incandescent and less efficient T12 and T8 fluorescent lamps will be almost completely eliminated over the next 10 years."

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Photo: Precision Paragon

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