Waste not, want not

Aug 23, 2011 By Janet Wilson
“This will reduce smog and greenhouse gases and mean a better quality of life for Southern Californians,” says National Fuel Cell Research Center associate director Jack Brouwer, at the new “sewage-to-hydrogen” fuel pump. Credit: Steve Zylius / University Communications

Imagine being able to get the equivalent of 70 miles per gallon in your car, keep your home cool and power your computer – all from sewage. Thanks to technology developed by UC Irvine’s National Fuel Cell Research Center and partners, that’s now possible.

Ten years of hard work, led by center associate director Jack Brouwer, has paid off in a cutting-edge project at the Orange County Sanitation District in Fountain Valley. A unique cell generator simultaneously and continuously converts gas created in wastewater digesters to hydrogen used for zero-emission vehicle fuel, electricity and heat in a highly efficient manner.

“This will reduce smog and greenhouse gases and mean a better quality of life for Southern Californians,” says Brouwer, showing off the white generator box and shiny silver pipes across from a waste settling pond, along with a brand-new hydrogen fueling station.

Starting this month, drivers of select hydrogen-run cars will be able to exit the 405 freeway at Euclid Avenue and fill up with converted sewage waste. Numerous major automakers have announced plans to commercially manufacture such vehicles by 2015. Using locally produced hydrogen will increase its supply and bring costs in line with other renewable energy sources.

“This is a paradigm shift,” says center director Scott Samuelsen. “We’ll be truly fuel-independent and no longer held hostage by other countries. This is the epitome of sustainability, where we’re taking an endless stream of human waste and transforming it to transportation fuel and electricity. This is the first time this has ever been done.”

At an unveiling of the project Aug. 16, U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, and other officials praised the work, calling those behind it “pioneers in the search for clean energy."

Recalling his own childhood in a much smoggier Orange County, Rohrabacher said: “Because the people at the Orange County Sanitation District and UCI’s National Fuel Cell Research Center – whose engineers invented the technology – are doing their duty discovering new sources of clean fuel for the future, our children will have clean air, clean water and a clean environment, even as our communities grow.”

According to Brouwer, a third of all cars on the road in the U.S. could eventually be powered by “biogas,” made from human waste, plant products and other renewable elements.

When waste sits in big, concrete holding tanks, it produces gases, primarily methane, he explains. Most of the methane at Orange County’s sanitation plant is filtered and used for power, with the surplus sold or burned to produce heat. Now that extra methane is being converted to hydrogen on-site by the fuel cell generator.

Fuel cells are like giant batteries. The generator uses chemical catalysts to split hydrogen atoms off each methane molecule. Much of the hydrogen is then transformed into 300 kilowatts of electricity. The rest is siphoned off and piped to the new hydrogen fueling station for use in automobiles equipped with smaller fuel cells, which convert it to electricity to run the engine.

Other collaborators on the project were FuelCell Energy Inc., which makes pollution-free power plants, and Air Products & Chemicals Inc., the biggest global supplier of hydrogen and other industrial gases.

“This location will show how well this technology works,” says Ed Heydorn, Air Products’ business development manager for hydrogen energy systems. “It’s another first for Air Products in terms of the varied sources of feed from which hydrogen can be produced, stored and dispensed.”

There are about 300 hydrogen-fuel cars on the road in California already. They have been leased or sold to an eager group of “early adapters” that includes environmentalists, movie stars, professors and car buffs. The first to pull up to Air Products’ new pump Aug. 16 was Jim Salomon of Newport Beach, in a sleek maroon Honda FCX Clarity he’s been driving for three years.

Despite owning custom muscle machines and other coveted vehicles, he said, “this is my favorite car. People think alternative-fuel cars don’t have guts. This one has great torque.”

Listening to the steady hiss of flowing into his tank, Salomon added: “Getting fuel from sewage is even better.”

Explore further: Green technology saves energy and boosts profits, productivity in factories

Related Stories

Teaching algae to make fuel

May 24, 2011

Many kinds of algae and cyanobacteria, common water-dwelling microorganisms, are capable of using energy from sunlight to split water molecules and release hydrogen, which holds promise as a clean and carbon-free ...

Metal particle generates new hope for H2 energy

Jun 28, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Tiny metallic particles produced by University of Adelaide chemistry researchers are bringing new hope for the production of cheap, efficient and clean hydrogen energy.

Recommended for you

Preparing for a zero-emission urban bus system

18 hours ago

In order to create a competitive and sustainable transport system, the EU must look to alternative fuels to replace or complement petrol and diesel. Not only will this reduce transport emissions but it will ...

Exploring the value of 'Energy Star' homes

18 hours ago

The numbers in neat columns tell—column by column, page by page—a story spread out across Carmen Carrión-Flores' desk at Binghamton University. It's a great story, she says; she just doesn't know how ...

Toward a networked energy future

Oct 29, 2014

February 1, 2050, is a good day for German electricity consumers. The breeze off the north coast is blowing so strongly that offshore wind farms and the wind turbines on land are running non-stop. Since it's ...

User comments : 16

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

CapitalismPrevails
4.3 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2011
- "This is a paradigm shift," says center director Scott Samuelsen. "Well be truly fuel-independent and no longer held hostage by other countries."

With hydrogen? Let's wait and see. Skeptic is my middle name.
Eikka
5 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2011
They're wasting a great deal of energy turning the methane - a much more useful gas - into hydrogen.

Should fuel the cars directly with methane instead.
Who_Wants_to_Know
3.5 / 5 (4) Aug 23, 2011
We already have no need to be dependent on foreign oil, if we just used our own resources. According to a major 2004 DOE report, we've got the equivalent of something like 2 TRILLION barrels of oil in shale oil. With current technology, we can extract and process it at prices that are already highly competitive.

In other words, we have a massive political problem, not a resource problem - which is a crying shame.
Newbeak
5 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2011
They're wasting a great deal of energy turning the methane - a much more useful gas - into hydrogen.

Should fuel the cars directly with methane instead.

Exactly.Methane doesn't have that annoying habit of weakening steel and diffusing out of almost any container like H2 does.See: http://www.dailym...ste.html
Isaacsname
3 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2011
Ya, doesn't cathodic protection prevent hydrogen embrittlement of metals ?
_nigmatic10
5 / 5 (3) Aug 24, 2011
Now when i'm taking too much time in the toilet, i can tell my wife i'm making energy.... right? Will future cars come with a luxury disposal bucket seat option?

Seriously, the development of the technology to convert the waste into hydrogen could prove useful to the space program.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Aug 24, 2011
We already have no need to be dependent on foreign oil, if we just used our own resources. According to a major 2004 DOE report, we've got the equivalent of something like 2 TRILLION barrels of oil in shale oil. With current technology, we can extract and process it at prices that are already highly competitive.

Have you looked at the ecological ramifications of the shale oil process? It's leaves behind a lot of toxic stuff. If it were undertaken on the kind of scale that would make a dent in the national oil consumption then containment (let alone he cleanup) problems would enormous.
LuckyExplorer
3 / 5 (4) Aug 24, 2011
"....With current technology, we can extract and process it at prices that are already highly competitive."

You have a problem, because you are just thinking on the price. - The problem is an ecological problem.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (2) Aug 24, 2011
Methane doesn't have that annoying habit of weakening steel and diffusing out of almost any container like H2 does.

The solution to this may be very cheap: Very few layers of graphene on the inside of a container seem to be enough to prevent any contact between the metal and the hydrogen content.
krwhite
4 / 5 (2) Aug 24, 2011
The path of least resistance to me seems like 'green gasoline'. You pretty much force nothing on the consumer or existing city infrastructure, which seems the more feasible option to me. I'd imagine battery cars will have their place as well, given their potential zero emission (assuming the power is from a clean source). However, I personally believe neither hydrogen nor methane will have much of a future in cars. It's just a guess, though. I would welcome either one.
unknownorgin
not rated yet Aug 25, 2011
I did not know hydrogen powered cars are now allowed on the road without a special permit from the DOT (department of transportation) Any IC (internal combustion) engine will run on hydrogen so make your own and beat high prices and feul taxes too.
Who_Wants_to_Know
4 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2011
@antialias & luckyexplorer - yes, I've looked into the ecological ramifications, and I'm afraid you are either behind the times, or misinformed. The technology has advanced rapidly, less water and solution is necessary than before, and the solutions are more benign also. A company CEO just got done DRINKING their frakking solution in public to show that.

You think there aren't serious issues involved with safely handling hydrogen, or converting infrastructure to be able handle it?

Or you just prefer to keep sending boatloads of $$ to nasty autocratic dictators, when we could be creating a huge number of good jobs here in the USA for our own people, and helping to raise rather than lower our standard of living? The better off we are, the more $$$, time, and effort go to protecting our environment along with helping the rest of the world. The worse off we are, the less we are able to do any of those things.
Jmaximus
2 / 5 (1) Aug 28, 2011
This needs to be scaled down so every home with a septic tank could generate it's own power.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Aug 28, 2011
A company CEO just got done DRINKING their frakking solution in public to show that.


Try drinking that stuff for 20 years, and then think again.

Besides, it's not the stuff they put in, but the stuff that comes out once they split the deposits open and the gas and oil gets around.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Aug 28, 2011
Any IC (internal combustion) engine will run on hydrogen so make your own and beat high prices and feul taxes too.


That is true, but due to the low ingition energy of hydrogen it tends to ignite prematurely and cause knocking, which destroys the engine.

Plus, the energy density of liquid hydrogen is a quarter of gasoline's, so your mileage will drop to 1/4 on it. There's also the problem that no pressure vessel is strong enough to contain liquid nitrogen, so you just have to make a big thermos bottle to slow the boiling to a slow evaporation and then let it vent out.

If you try it with pressurized gaseous hydrogen, you'll find the energy density even lower. That's the reason why all practical hydrogen vehicles run on fuel cells instead of piston engines. BMW tired to make one, but had to abandon the concept because the whole back end of the car had to be reserved for the fuel tank. It's simply too inefficient for the amount of energy you can carry on-board.
Eric_B
not rated yet Aug 28, 2011
who wants to know,

individuals and political parties who agree with you who are funded, invested or otherwise owned by the industries of which you speak have just BLOWN more money by theft and failure to prevent 911 than it would have taken to convert this entire nation to whatever alternative energy source that one might name.

so, those tired, tried, greasy opinions don't impress much...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.