Volume 86 Issue 42 | p. 6 | Letters
Issue Date: October 20, 2008

Pyrolysis Paralysis

Department: Letters

THE G8 MEETING in early July had 13 attendant academies of science reporting on world health problems. But no scientists or environmentalists involved made a connection between the world's health problems and the mishandling of organic waste (C&EN, July 14, page 6). Some may argue that greenhouse gases (GHGs) cause global warming, but I don't think anyone can deny the global role of ever-expanding organic waste as a cause of growing pollution and health problems. And the costs for handling them in developed countries are also ever-expanding. It seems no one realizes the economic benefits to be obtained from establishing a pyrolysis system to handle them.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's 2006 report indicates big jumps in carbon dioxide and methane emissions, possibly indicating that yedoma, organic detritus trapped in permafrost, is now becoming nature's own "infernal" combustion machine (Science 2006, 312, 1612). Restricting carbon emissions means just slowing the expanding overload.

We could achieve real emissions reduction by stopping needless GHGs that are reemitted from biodegradation of organic waste. Pyrolysis processes, which use organic waste, can stop GHGs from being reemitted and also destroy their germs, toxins, and drugs to greatly reduce expanding global water pollution and health problems. In developed countries with costly dump requirements to prevent seepage of those hazards, new dumps without those wastes would be nearly cost-free.

The pyrolysis process expels a hot distillate of simple organic compounds mixed with some steam, all of which can be passed through a turbocharger and then collected and refined to supplant oil stocks. At least chemical manufacturing would make some money from the waste. The hot, powdery charcoal that forms can be passed through heat exchangers to provide steam for power. It may have to be kept wet to avoid dust explosions or might be buried as a damp slurry in old mines or oil wells.

For substantial reduction in the CO2 overload, a massive tree-cycling program to feed harvested trees into pyrolysis-process-generating distillate could be established, allowing its use as fuel. C&EN and other science magazines have written about trapping CO2 from power plants burning fossil fuel and from the air itself. So far, reported results are less than promising, and processes being developed use large amounts of energy and involve toxic, flammable chemicals.

Forget fancy proposals: Nature—through her trapping of carbon dioxide in plants that eventually generate organic wastes—has initiated a way for us to overcome several of the world's environmental problems.

James Singmaster III
Fremont, Calif.

 
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