On a nighttime drive down Interstate 90, one encounters an ever-growing mountain of trash past Exit 24. In the dark, flares line the landfill like funeral pyres. Deep below, methane is born. Methane gas has become an environmental nightmare due to decay of organic matter. As methane is channeled out of the landfill, it is burned and ultimately wasted. But these roadside pyres are the breeding grounds for an energy epiphany
As clearly demonstrated by landfill flares, methane (CH4) is a highly flammable gas. Methane is also a greenhouse gas 21 times worse than carbon dioxide. It is released into the atmosphere through both natural and human-related activities.
Methane is produced through anaerobic fermentation. Methane-producing bacteria, or methanogens, use this process to decompose organic material in the absence of oxygen. Naturally occurring sources of methane include solid hydrates found in melting oceanic permafrost, wetlands and termites, which form methane as they digest wood. Anthropogenic anaerobic fermentation is found in rice paddies, sewage facilitates, and landfills. Alongside the bowels of municipal dumps, the bowels of livestock generate methane that escapes from both ends of the animal.
To see the potential of methane as an energy source, one needs only to look at natural gas, a major fossil fuel, which is almost pure methane once refined. However, natural gas must be drilled, while methane produced via anaerobic fermentation is readily available worldwide. This methane can be difficult to harness, and once it diffuses into the atmosphere, it is nearly impossible to retrieve.
The secret to utilizing this valuable energy source lies in controlling the way it is produced and containing it. The growth of “biogas technology” poses a realistic way to transform organic wastes directly into useable methane. Contained in an airtight digester unit, the wastes, called substrates, anaerobically ferment, yielding methane rich biogas. The biogas can then be purified, stored, and used in the same manner as natural gas.
Industrial biogas plants provide a clean source of energy all over Europe. During World War II, biogas compensated for fuel shortages in Germany. Today, biogas fuels buses and trains, maintains greenhouses, and even puts electricity on the grid. On a smaller scale, family-sized digesters are used in third-world countries and parts of India where biogas replaces propane and firewood as sustainable cooking fuel. America is catching the biogas bug with over 140 biogas facilities in the United States and 17 in New York state alone.
Science has demonstrated methane’s potential as a powerful, renewable, controllable energy source. The time has come to replace natural resources with garbage. At the dump, methane is cultivated and ushered to the surface, where it is burned off, wasted. In that flame, that brilliant beacon burgeoning in the night, a phoenix rises — new energy for a new generation
Katie Picchione is a sophomore at Academy of the Holy Names