CLEAN BREAK: Sustainable Energy's New Wave

CLEAN BREAK: Sustainable Energy's New Wave

You may have heard this before: the new generation of consumers want products that reflect their personal values. It’s no longer sufficient to manufacture a product or develop a service that solves a problem better or leads the way towards a new technological breakthrough. It’s almost as if growing up under the looming threat of climate change can redirect one’s perception of consumption from one of necessity and personal gratification to one that prizes environmental and personal health benefits above all. These more civic-minded sets of criteria—previously diametrically opposed— have now become inextricably linked. From clothing to candy to carpet cleaning – everything under the constant threat of the sun must be considered from the standpoint of its carbon footprint.

The impact of the greening of the world is spreading like kudzu around the globe. In the United States, the practice of large-scale repurposing has also begun to spread. Recently, one of the last coal burning plants in West Michigan has been decommissioned. Normally, this could have an enormous negative impact on the surrounding communities that rely on large companies for their economic well-being. In the case of The Sims coal plant in Grand Haven, an old wave of power generation is now riding the crest of a new, more sustainable wave: food waste.

According to the American Biogas Council, Sims now incorporates new technology that uses the waste from food manufacturers to brew methane which is then burned by two huge V-20 engines to produce energy – enough for 2,500 homes. Any waste that isn’t burned into energy is used as fertilizer, and studies show that food waste works better for growing crops than manure, which is the traditional way most farmers feed their fields. Of course, while switching to clean energy is in increasing demand among consumers, such a paradigmatic shift can present major challenges.

A plant in Fremont, Michigan installed its biodigester in 2013 with hopes of achieving similar success, but issues with foul smells wafting into the noses of nearby residents forced the plant to declare bankruptcy by 2017. Fortunately, the biodigester was purchased by a company called Dynamic Systems Management who then invested as much as $3.5 million in upgrading the system and investigated a number of leaks in the air filtering configuration.

Like all energy generation processes, biodigesters are heavily reliant on efficiency. Tankers, barrels and pallets of unwanted food products are brought in from various manufacturers around the state, separated from their packaging, and then dumped into a loading tank. Naturally, the building housing the tank must be sealed tightly to keep the ripening smell from escaping into the surrounding community. Then the organic material is pumped into large storage containers where it breaks down and becomes the methane and “digestate” used for fuel and fertilizer. When one considers that Michigan produces over 3 million tons of organic food waste a year, it becomes very clear that biogas production will be a major contributor to that state’s sustainable energy programs.

While some clean energy innovation comes from rotting waste; other, more virtual forms spring from fertile minds. There are being developed digital technologies and tools that will further propel nuclear power into the forefront of clean energy solutions. One of those tools is the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) that mimics real-world conditions of existing advanced reactors presently under development. These reactors are extremely fast, sodium-cooled, and high temperature which makes them very different from the reactors currently in use around the United States. When molten salt reactors run, the neutrons are moving with 100,000 times more energy, which means they can split a much wider variety of atoms to make energy and can produce steam that can be used for a greater variety of purposes.

While this less-expensive and more versatile technology is highly promising, it’s impossible to know exactly how these new reactors would behave after 20 or 30 years. By simulating the conditions of their environment, engineers can test and re-test a reactor’s parts under extended duress. What’s more, the technology could also be used to test materials for other industries. Hope is understandably high that the VTR would help accelerate the next generation of nuclear power without carbon emissions.

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