Recycling the most basic element can produce surprising results

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Just recently reports have put forward suggestions for the use of various products to be converted in to fuel to power a vehicle. Hot on the heels of one such development where whisky bi-products were being used comes one which pushes the claims of panda poo to power your car.

For high carbon emissions certain biofuels can be worse than gasoline, unless used in conjunction with an agent that can break them down. The bacteria from panda’s gut contains microbes which help to break down materials such as corn cobs and stems meaning that the bear’s ability to naturally convert material into the type of sugars that can be fermented into bioethanol is a sharp contrast to the current carbon-intensive options.

A slight variation on the theme, the UK’s first bus powered by human waste was unleashed onto the streets of Bristol last year. The 40-seat Bio-Bus, nicknamed “the number two,” transports people between Bath and Bristol Airport. The biomethane gas it runs on is produced at a sewage treatment works at Avonmouth and the eco-friendly vehicle can travel up to 300km (186 miles) on one tank of gas, which takes the annual waste of about five people to produce.

But it’s not just fuel that is being produced through the recycling of human and animal waste products –

  • Rhino paper – An Indian company based in Mumbai collects Elephant and Rhino dung in order to convert it into paper. Standard paper production uses vast amounts of water and chemicals, emitting high levels of CO2. The dung is high in cellulose, which is the main fibre utilised in the paper making process. The claim is that this process uses 44% less energy than by using virgin wood and generates 50% less waste. Similarly, a company in Wales is using sheep droppings to make a range of paper products in a simple process which could be replicated at home!
  • A stool from a stool – A designer based in Tel Aviv has developed a range of furniture derived from horse manure, straw and other forms of agricultural waste. The process used is one that could be used in developing countries to add income into smaller communities or simply to be used in homes. The range currently encompasses stools and lampshades but there’s no reason why other items could not be created in the same way.
  • A revitalising cup of coffee – Civet coffee is a rarefied brew made from the droppings of a nocturnal, catlike animal called the Asian palm civet. The lithe, long-tailed creature eats a diet of coffee berries, digesting the fruit’s fleshy pulp and passing the tough pit through its gastrointestinal tract whole (although enzymes break down the bean’s proteins). After the civet defecates the undigested coffee beans, they are then harvested, husked, washed, and roasted.
  • Poo power – A team from Stanford University have been working on a machine that can pasteurise milk having been run on dung. The idea could make farmers fully self-sufficient with cow dung providing all the power needed for pasteurisation. Indeed by the cow dung powering the biodigester, methane emissions are reduced, less milk gets spoilt and incomes are increased. Energy use is also halved by the use of a high voltage pulse to kill bacteria directly rather heating up the whole volume of milk.
  • Janicki Omniprocessor – The Janicki Omniprocessor is a steam-powered sewage processor that burns up solid waste and creates both potable water and electricity. The machine was designed and built by the Washington-based engineering firm Janicki Bioenergy, amid hopes that the machine can help solve one of the developing world’s biggest problems — access to clean water. Measuring about 75 feet (23 meters) long and 26 feet (8 m) across, this small processing plant can handle about 14 tons of waste every day. That means it’s large enough to continually process sewage from a community of about 100,000 people. The machine is loaded up with sewer sludge, which travels up a conveyor belt and is fed into large tubes known as dryers. The dryers boil the sludge, removing all the liquid and capturing it as water vapor, which is then heavily processed, making it suitable to drink. The solid waste is dumped into an incinerator, which burns up the rest of the waste, creating a good deal of heat. This heat, in turn, is funneled through a steam engine, which produces high-temperature steam that fuels a generator. The generator creates electricity that is used to power the machine. There’s even a little extra electricity left over that can be transferred into the power grid. This self-sustaining machine will soon be launched in a pilot project in Dakar, Senegal, where Janicki engineers will study the Omniprocessor’s operation in a real-world setting.