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Harvesting Landfill Methane

August 4th, 2006

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THURSDAY JULY 27, 2006 – SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA We turned left, from one six lane road to another and gunned the motor. A mile later CR&R maintenance supervisor Chris Damyen asked “How can you lose a garbage truck?” (Left: Pedro Ruiz drives a garbage truck)

I had to laugh. The oddness of driving endless suburban streets of McMansions packed with smaller McHouses was just…silly. All I wanted to do was make photos of a common garbage truck.

The uniqueness is that CR&R’s trucks are run on LNG (liquified natural gas). At about $1 dollar/gallon as opposed to $3 dollars/gallon it’s not only a cleaner burning fuel than diesel, its much more economic. (Right: A side-loader in Suburbia)

But, says Damyen, “It would be terrible for trucking. You’d run out of gas because no one has the fuel.”

Like hydrogen for fuel cell cars, LNG lacks a widespread distribution network. For fleets with a central fuel depot, like CR&R’s, it makes sense. Companies are working to capitalize on the benefits of LNG but Seattle-based Prometheus is taking it one step further. Prometheus is tapping into the methane gas naturally emitted by landfills as garbage decays. (Left: Bahman Roomiany bolting the liquifier together)

The company is building the world’s first commercial scale methane gas liquefier which, when completed, will produce 5,000 gallons per-day of 98 percent pure methane.Similar in properties to LNG the gas will be ready to feed fleets like CR&R’s with the benefit of little to no transportation costs. Granted, when methane (CH4) is burned it produces water and the greenhouse gas CO2, however methane itself is a worse greenhouse gas. Currently federal law requires methane be burned on-site at flare facilities. (Right: Huge stack flaring methane)

In Orange County, where Prometheus is building its first plant, the Bowerman landfill burns an equivalent of 40,000 gallons per-day of methane. No power generation or heat capture is performed; the methane is simply burned off into the atmosphere. While not an endless supply of methane (sealed landfills will continue to produce methane for another 15-20 years) it is, according to Dan Clarkson of Prometheus, an intermediate step on the road to establishing a market for cleaner burning gaseous fuels like hydrogen. (Above: The liquifier in the foreground, flare station behind)

The landfill itself is an enormous reservoir of trash, layer-caked in 20′ intervals filling a canyon on the outskirts of Irvine, Calif. Methane collection pipes and well heads line each layer. A typical day will see 800-1000 trucks dumping their loads as massive D9 bulldozers and stud-wheeled compacters push the garbage around, utilizing GPS and in-cab computer displays to optimize the depth and location of the refuse. (Left: A compactor tearing it up)

It is a loud, chaotic operation as diesel motors roar and orange-vested workers direct trucks for maximum efficiency. With my medium-sized body draped in an XL vest and hard hat I ran between workers; I didn’t have a feel for where the vehicles were going and was repeatedly warned that the operators, riding high in small cabs behind massive shovels, had limited visibility and could easily back over me. Not too long ago a D9 ran up onto the hood of an F350 pickup, crushing the engine and chassy before they were able to radio the operator to stop. (Right: Waste Inspector Richard Gemmrig removes a TV while D9’s push trash)

In a couple of months Prometheus expects to have a ribbon cutting ceremony for phase one of its landfill LNG project, clearing the way for five more stages which will harvest most of the landfill’s methane. In the meantime there is a lot of bolt-tightening, pipe fitting, and public relations to be done. After all, while other countries use landfill methane to produce heat and power, this is the world’s first landfill methane gas liquifying plant. (Right: yours truly)

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