Thursday, February 13, 2014

Recycling like we've never seen it before

As I wrote this article on energy a few days ago, I began to imagine a world that is carbon negative, where carbon is pulled from the air to reduce the CO2 levels from over 600 parts per million down to prehistoric levels of 350 parts per million. A world where no factory ever has to release pollution again. The only way to get there is to counter the flow with cheap, abundant, carbon free or negative energy that can be used to capture and reform the waste.

Years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to silica bed waste oxidation for pollution control. In a nutshell, he works for a company that helps factories redirect their effluvia, the gases that we would call pollution, and turn them into carbon dioxide and water. The systems he builds generate 97% of their own fuel to run. You can find out more here, but the point is, we don't really have to pollute when we can take the waste and reform it before releasing it.

There are now reforming systems for plastics, organic waste and complete systems for removing metals from the waste stream. All of them require some external source of energy. What I see in my mind is some sort of crucible that we can dump all of our solid waste into and out comes raw elements or basic materials in pure forms, at various levels of the crucible, like a refinery.

Years ago, while working for a retirement home, I saw a huge number of batteries being trashed, so I proposed to find a recycling solution to management. With the Big Green Box, I buy a prepaid hazardous materials shipping container, a cardboard box designed for the job. Then people come by and put their dead batteries inside. When the box is full, we put a label on it and ship it. The Big Green Box will shred everything - batteries, phones, small electronics - and sinter it down to pure elements and sell the elements on the open market. Nothing goes to waste there.

Nothing in nature goes to waste, all the way up and down the food chain. There are scavengers everywhere, looking for waste as food, most of them are insects and bacteria. They're the ones at the bottom, keeping the forests and the oceans clean. We need to create economic incentives to get this done at the human scale, because, as we have seen, capitalism often fails at this without government intervention.

While learning about thorium, I also learned that the molten salt reactors run at a temperature high enough that the waste heat can be used to create fuels out of carbon dioxide in the air. A fair number of experiments have run worldwide on how to create fuel from air. This takes time and energy, but it can be done. With nuclear power at our disposal, cheap, safe and abundant in the form of the molten salt reactor, we can do this. Even with uranium, the molten salt reactor creates a tiny fraction of waste compared to the fragile, inefficient light water reactors we have now.

We can learn a lot from nature. Recycling everything, and I really mean everything, can do wonders for our economy and our environment. From gum wrappers to cars, we need to find a way to put it all back into a raw materials stream that can be used again. I can even see a future where we mine our landfills and recycle their contents. My dream for humankind is a civilization where nothing goes to waste.

Is it worth the effort? Sure it is. Just ask the residents of Danville, Virginia.
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