Pollution from factories and other places might be dollars just going up in smoke. But a promising new technology turns these ordinarily troublesome waste products into something that’s especially valuable these days: cheap electricity. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert has this
Pollution from factories and other places might be dollars just going up
in smoke, but a promising new technology turns these ordinarily
troublesome waste products into something that’s especially valuable
these days: cheap electricity. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie
Halpert has this report:
Remember the children’s story, where Rumpelstiltskin was able to take
straw, a cheap, abundant material, and magically transform it into
precious gold? Well, these days, cheap energy is like gold, and one
company has found a way to similarly generate power from pollution.
(Sound of engine running)
To see how it works, I’m standing on a roof sixty-five feet above the
ground. This is where Ford Motor Company maintains its pollution
control equipment. There are rectangular gray metal boxes as tall as I am
all over the roof, so many that we can barely walk between them. Under
the roof, they’re painting trucks. The paint emits vapors that Ford is now
capturing with these big boxes of machinery.
Mark Wherrett is Ford’s principal environmental engineer.
“We’re here at the Ford Motor Company Michigan truck plant, where the
paint solvent is collected from the process and used as a fuel to make
electricity in a Stirling Engine.”
The Stirling Engine is key. Here’s how it works. Ford’s using an engine
developed by STM Power. STM is using an old engine style called a
Stirling Engine that was once used in place of a steam engine. Instead of
using coal or wood to heat up water and make steam, STM burns the
paint fumes to heat up hydrogen and power the engine. The fumes will
generate 55 kilowatts of electricity. That’s enough to power 11 homes.
There’s not as much pollution emitted at the end, since burning can be
adjusted to temperatures where pollutants are reduced. Wherrett says
that for Ford, the technology simply has no downsides.
“The fumes to fuel process takes the environmental emissions and turns
them on their head, so instead of them being a waste product that we
have to dispose of, we can then turn it into a commodity where we can
then use that to make electricity and use that in our plant systems.”
And that means Ford doesn’t have to purchase as much power from the
Dorrance Noonan is CEO of STM Power, the company that’s redesigned
the old engine. Noonan says Ford is a perfect candidate for this
“We’re really excited about the Ford project because it offers a
tremendous opportunity to manufacturing companies and large paint
operations, who have large VOC problems that they have to deal with in
very expensive ways.”
The Ford plant is just the beginning for the company. They also plan to
deliver their portable on-site generators to landfills and wastewater
treatment plants. In that situation, methane gas is used as the fuel to
generate electricity. Noonan says his company has a bright future.
“Well, in the next couple of years, we see strong penetration in our two focus
markets, which are the landfill markets in the U.S. and the wastewater
treatment markets in the United States, and then we see that expansion
going outside of the United States to Europe and eventually to Asia.”
There are some skeptics.
Dan Rassler, with the Electric Power Research Institute, says STM’s
technology does have the potential to create viable new sources of
energy, but more companies need to actually start using it before he can
know for sure, and he says that right now the technology is still too
expensive for many companies.
“We’d like to see the capitol costs of these systems be lower than where
they are today.”
Right now, an STM unit costs $65,000. Rassler would like to see overall
costs cut by 10 to 20 percent. He says costs could decrease as more of
these units come on line.
STM CEO Dorrance Noonan says the costs are comparable to competing
on-site generators, and these expenses will be offset by using the free
fuel used to generate electricity that his engines provide. Noonan says
that continuing high natural gas prices will be his technology’s best
friend, as companies strive for ways to reduce energy costs.
For the GLRC, I’m Julie Halpert.