New research from Kajima, a Japanese company, and Tokyo University, suggests that microbes from human waste could be a good source of energy for hydrogen fuel cell cars. According to a report yesterday on Japan’s Nikkei, the company has produced a fuel cell that generates 130W from each cubic meter of waste. Kajima believes it will take another decade to commercialize the product.
Researchers from the University of California, and administrators at California’s Orange County Sanitation District, appear to be further along. Last fall, they installed an $8 million fuel-cell device to convert human waste into hydrogen fuel. In an interview with the Orange County Register, Scott Samuelsen, director of UC Irvine’s National Fuel Cell Research Center who helped develop the device, said, “The waste stream from society is being turned around, and providing energy and transportation fuel for the society. “
The Sanitation District has used methane gas from sewage to power its systems for years, but the new device—built by Air Products of Pennsylvania and FuelCell Energy of Connecticut—is able to separate the methane into three streams of energy: one to help heat the sewage, one to generate electricity, and one for storage tanks ready for use in hydrogen cars. (Of course, the cost of a practical hydrogen car will be prohibitive for many years.)
Last week, the Associated Press reported that Idaho energy czar Paul Kjellander is proposing a package of state income tax credits and incentives promote the burning of cow patties to generate electricity. That electricity, suggests auto website Edmunds.com, could supply power for plug-in vehicles. This program would essentially “recycle” methane, the second-worst greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide.
The BBC’s auto show, Top Gear, wondered if cars could be more directly run on “number two.” Top Gear’s Richard Hammond provided an overview of the process of generating methane from cow patties. After pumping the methane into cars converted to run on compressed natural gas, Hammond conducted a drag race to compare the performance of the cow poop-powered car, with a similar car running on—ahem—human-produced methane, and a conventional car running on petroleum.
While the performance of the poop-powered vehicles left something to be desired, perhaps converting methane from human and animal waste into vehicle fuel could help the Environmental Protection Agency control global warming from methane pollution. A 2007 US Supreme Court ruling concluded that greenhouse gases emitted by the “belching and flatulence” of livestock does indeed constitute air pollution. Despite false reports that the current EPA was proposing a “cow tax,” any plan to deal with the environmental consequences of cow flatulence will be among the pile of problems left to the incoming Obama administration.
Thanks to fashionfunky.com for the tip on the Japanese fuel cell project.