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#greentech #energy #methane

I'm going to talk shit for a while. Those who have been following my posts may not see any difference ;)

Any scientific geniuses out there in my circles? I keep thinking there has to be a better way.

I'm a fan of looking to nature for solutions. Biomimicry it's called. I keep thinking that our waste could be a solution to our energy problem rather than a contributor to our environmental and energy problem like it currently is. Nature uses everything. Including crap. Heck we use it as fertilizer on our gardens as well. Yet our sewage and solid waste is a massive energy hog and drain on our environment.

Between the Denver Zoo's prototype poop powered golf cart and projects like this to collect methane and turn it into energy through fuel cells I think there has to be a way to redesign the sewage and solid waste systems we use in cities to make them efficient and part of a solution to energy issues rather than part of the problem. I realize there are health issues with how we handle human excrement and the pathogen risk and other issues would need to be overcome. But it seems we discount a lot of ideas because the cost / benefit model doesn't add up. But at the end of the day the cost / benefit model is based on the dollar cost rather than the real actual cost. We can always make more dollars. Governments have done that for years. But we can't make more planets no matter how many dollars we have.

Maybe we can't change them overnight but can't we at least come up with some new designs that could be implemented in new areas as we expand as a species and cities continue to grow?

But I don't know enough about the science behind the tech involved to design something. For example they mention in the article that their fuel cells are running around 1200 degrees so you wouldn't want one in a car. That is a massive amount of heat being produced. Is that a byproduct of the cell or is that part of how it generates it's electricity? Seems to me you could tap that heat as well and use it somehow. Anyone passionate about the environment and / or poop and have the kind of scientific knowledge that could help educate me or work with me to come up with something?
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Craig Velenski's profile photoChris George's profile photo
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Permaculture and sustainable food systems have what you are looking for.

When creating anything, whether products or services, we need to make the principle of sustainability and the principles to be learned from permaculture part of the process. If everything is designed to be a part of a closed loop that is part of a bigger closed loop which is part of an ecosystem which is part of the ultimate closed loop of the planetary ecosystem then we will have achieved a sustainable product of service. If we simply dump the waste output of the process or discard the product when done with it we haven't.

We must close all of our material loops and learn to create using only the energy flows found in nature. Fossil fuel inputs are not sustainable. Nuclear inputs are not sustainable. The primary input is the short wave radiation entering the planetary ecosystem from the sun. If your product or process can be created by and run on the only sustainable flow of energy than it is a sustainable product or process. Every material output needs to be the input for another process. Close all the loops and you win.

That is a target, not the reality anywhere except in small scale limited cycles. And you are absolutely correct. As long as the markets can keep the price of oil unrealistically low as they have since we discovered oil, sustainable solutions will not have a chance. To be deemed uneconomic is the kiss of death in our society. Considering that we have pretty much built our entire civilization on a substance that has pretty much unlimited demand when compared to remaining supply, the price we have paid historically is a small fraction of its actual value.

The poop problem in cities is a problem of the commons. We allow people to dump pretty much anything into the liquid waste stream. Antibiotics, hormones, hydrocarbons, bleach, paint, solvents, heavy metals, you name it, its in there. The expense of treating effluent to enable its use as fuel or fertilizer is currently uneconomic without government subsidy. On a smaller scale, like at the household level, much can be done. Composting toilets, compost bins for organic waste and a rational system of dealing with household chemicals and other toxins would be a good start.

We are rapidly moving beyond alternatives for transport fuel. We need alternatives for transport period. The 3D printer model is encouraging. Small scale factories capable of manufacturing a wide range of products in an automated and local fashion will encourage local recycling of products and the materials used in them. The era of big box stores where 10,000 customers per day drive themselves tens of miles in their own private $30k one ton steel machine are over. Instead of a future with cars that run on magic dust we need to envision a future with no cars. Much better to spec out a product on the computer, order it from the local factory and have it delivered by one truck as part of that driver's 500 daily deliveries.

It is a big topic. Part of it has to be a recognition that without oil, the mega city is not viable. A sustainable city does not have the ecological footprint that 10 million people have. A sustainable city is about 100,000 and the 100 mile radius around it. At that scale, solutions to waste and energy are manageable using the solar inputs but only if everything is designed with low energy and closed material cycling. Retrofits will be prohibitively expensive.
 
+Chris George Great response with a ton of information in it. Where did you get the stats on the sustainable city not being viable as a mega city? I figured we could develop the technology to make a sustainable mega city but it sounds like you're saying that 100K is the upper limit of population and that will need 100 miles around it too work. I figured we needed to go both up and down but that we could still condense much more than that.
 
Good question. I have read so much on the issue I cannot remember where I read it. Richard Heinberg or Derrick Jensen perhaps. It might even have been in Kunstler's book. Luckily I just started university so I am now being a lot more careful with sources. :-)

The problems are food, water and waste. After a city gets to a certain size it loses sustainability as it requires too much energy for transportation of the first two into the city and the third out. To put the problem in perspective we would need to reduce the energy component of transport considerably from what we currently use to maintain the size of our current cities. Look at some of the measures available on the Internet that measure how many Earths for a given standard of living. http://www.myfootprint.org/ for example. Assume every single one of the 7 billion people want to live as you and run the numbers. Then figure out what is possible given the actuality of the planets surface. This is a difficult problem. Most attempts to address it look at it from the alternative fuel aspect. No one is looking at it from the hard sustainability aspect where you deal with the watts/square meter of incoming solar radiation. All sustainable alternative fuels, if they are to even approximate diesel or gasoline require large amounts of land for production of fuel. The more land for fuel close to the city, the further afield we must go for food and water. Pushing the land for fuel further away simply makes it less and less sustainable.

There are many stop gaps in the works. There are no solutions that I have yet seen. When the oil runs out we are in trouble. As it declines the price will rise which will encourage alternatives but will also kill economic growth, jobs and most importantly for the financial sector, the ability of anyone to pay interest. My concern is that we have had such a long run with artificially low prices for oil that we have subverted the market's ability to find economical alternatives. The longer we subsidize economic growth with borrowing and printing money, the harder the problem gets.

Sustainability is a principle that must influence everything we do. At least until we find a way to harness an energy source as portable and high EROEI as oil that does not have the waste problems. I am not holding my breath.
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