Good News! A round-up of environmental preservation progress
Happy Earth Day! The planet is warming, seas are rising and violent weather is becoming too common to be called extreme. But there’s still good news out there on Planet Earth.
For instance, there’s a carbon capture technology that could revolutionize fossil-fuel energy. Solar-powered tech that can pull drinkable water out of the air from even the most water-restricted regions. A non-electric passenger train that only releases harmless steam. And a more planet-friendly way of…well, just read on.
Conquering the valley of death
Carbon capture isn’t new. The idea is to sequester carbon, a byproduct of fossil-fueled energy production, before it can be released into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. It’s under development for coal-fueled energy plants, but it’s very expensive. That’s because it’s a two-cycle process wherein the nasty stuff must be siphoned off and rerouted to a second bolt-on unit.
But what if you could use carbon in a highly-pressurized state rather than steam to run combustion turbines in natural gas energy production, which is already recognized as being cleaner than coal? What if you could, in effect, then recycle that CO2 in a continuous loop and reuse it to run those turbines for zero emissions of CO2? And what if you could collect other usable gases in the process, further reducing operational costs?
8 Rivers Capital is a venture capital and private equity firm with the mission of inventing and commercializing good tech solutions to some of today’s leading problems. The firm started working on the concept of carbon capture back in 2009, with the help of Rodney Allam. The British chemical engineer and retired director of technology had first gotten interested in the challenge and potential of pressurizing CO2 after seeing a 1938 Russian paper presented at a tech conference in the 1990s.
“We started out trying to solve the coal problem,” 8 Rivers spokesperson Walker Dimmig told Earth.com.
At the time, there was still a lot of interest in coal-fueled energy generation, especially outside of the U.S. But “dirty” coal lost ground when natural gas became cheaper, could be processed with less of an environmental impact and looked more like the future of fossil-fueled energy.
8 Rivers started NET Power with investors CB&I, Toshiba and Exelon. Bill Brown, the new company’s CEO, has the same title at 8 Rivers. The team is using the technology developed by Allam – the Allam Cycle – and believes that energy plants using it will cost about the same as a conventional natural gas energy plant.
“But we also learned that the gases we produce, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon, have a great deal of value. That’s the kicker,” said Dimmig.
Those gas byproducts with commercial value can also be sequestered and rerouted to customers, further reducing plant cost.
Now they must walk the valley of death. That’s the gap between theoretically solving a tech problem and commercializing it. Scientists and engineers can invent all kinds of cool stuff, but if the technology is too expensive or cumbersome to use it’s of little real-world value.
Will it work? The technology has merited favorable news reports by The New York Times, Forbes, Vox and National Public Radio. But the proof is in the proving. That’s why 8 Rivers is building a scaled-down power plant in La Porte, Texas that will go online later this year and be run by the energy company Exelon. The NET Power team envision carbon capture natural gas energy plants as being a logical planet-friendly option to renewable energy technologies still in development.
Bottom line, according to Dimmig: “It could lower the cost to the consumer while running clean.”
Steam dreams become reality
While NET Power is still traversing the valley of death, Germany has already figured out how to use hydrogen – a chemical industry waste product – to run passenger trains instead of heavily polluting diesel fuel. The world’s first hydrogen-fueled train was invented by a French company, Alstom, and will go into operation in northern Germany in December of this year.
The so-called hydrail requires the placement of a 200-pound hydrogen tank, which is nothing for a passenger train to carry. The hydrogen interacts with oxygen in the air to produce electricity which is stored in a large battery. The technology releases only steam and runs nearly silently.
Roughly 20 percent of all of Europe’s many rail lines are diesel-fueled, so the hydrail, as long as it can be fully proven out with the German train test, will be scaled up quickly. It has the potential to remove a large air pollution source throughout the EU.
Sun and air equals water
Imagine getting water that’s safe for drinking, cooking and hygiene from even the most drought-wracked pockets of the world. Now imagine this technology runs itself with an absence of wells or pipeline infrastructure. And the “recipe” is only sun and air. That describes Zero Mass Water in a nutshell.
“Even here in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, SOURCE produces clean, great-tasting drinking water from air using only the power of the sun,” company founder and CEO Cody Friesen told Earth.com by email. “We’ve installed SOURCE in a wide variety of climates from the arid desert to the humid equatorial jungle, and at a range of elevations including at the Dead Sea.”
Friesen is the Fulton Engineering Professor of Innovation at Arizona State University and a senior sustainability scientist at the school’s Global Institute of Sustainability. Furthering his credentials, Friesen also invented Fluidic Energy, a company that produces long duration, cost-effective batteries powering remote villages worldwide.
A SOURCE device looks like a solar panel with a water collection box and pulls ever-present water vapor from the air. One off-grid device can harvest more than five quarts of clean water per day, on average.
Think of the places on Earth where droughts have lasted years or decades, not months.
“Places that are experiencing drought still have moisture in the air (at times, a lot of moisture),” Friesen wrote. “SOURCE taps into this inexhaustible supply, making drinking water in places where the resource is scarce. It is the only technology that is both free of waste and free from water or energy infrastructure (that’s right, no pipe connection, just air as an input; and no electrical connection, just the sun for energy).”
Currently, each device costs a few thousand dollars, so Friesen’s next goal is to whittle away at costs so an array of devices can be installed in even the most impoverished communities. He’s also asking that current customers donate an extra ten percent of the sale price for placement of the devices in less fortunate regions of the world to “democratize” water resources.
The green reaper strikes
Undertaker Elizabeth Fournier proudly sports her self-described title, “green reaper.” Her website, naturally, is cornerstonefuneral.com. She owns a funeral home in Boring, Oregon, a community she says is “anything but.”
Fournier got into green funerals about ten years ago, when a client asked that a loved one be buried on a piece of family property. To her surprise, she found that there were no regulations in her county against the practice. From then on, she became known as an undertaker not afraid to go non-traditional—and more earth-friendly in her services.
“I became everyone’s go-to girl for death,” Fournier told Earth.com in explaining how her childhood helping others bury loved pets put her on her career path.
A green or natural burial can include a simple wooden casket constructed of perhaps pine or cedar. No metal hardware or concrete liner. No multi-thousand-dollar plush box of hardwood construction that will never again see the light of day. As for the shroud, Fournier recommends such natural biodegradable products as silk, wool, cotton or linen. A sheet off the bed will do fine.
“You become part of the Earth,” she explained.
If Fournier’s preferred ways of departing sound like a return to the past, it is. As she explains it, journeyers along the Oregon Trail would bury their loved ones at the side of the road. Probably no casket at all, and a simple cross left behind to memorialize the departed. Embalming became a practice during the Civil War, when families wanted their dead soldiers returned from the battlefield for home burial.
Traditional burial practices waste endangered hardwoods. They put metals into the ground where they can poison water sources. Cremation is little better from an environmental perspective. Now the method used with 78 percent of the nation’s deaths, according to Fournier, cremation burns a lot of natural gas as fuel and can release toxic metals and chemicals from the body into the atmosphere.
Fournier stresses that she still provides traditional funeral and burial arrangements, and that everyone’s needs vary. It’s also important to look into the rules, regulations or even the availability of green burial services where you live because they vary greatly on a county-by-county basis. But if possible, and desired, green burial can be as good and loving to the planet as it is to the deceased.