Taking a Clean Energy Cue From Doc Brown

People who know me well know that I’m a movie nerd. I especially love science fiction. One of my all-time favorite series is Back to the Future. Having seen so many once dreamt-of technologies come to life—drones, digital payments, wearable tech on the level of Marty McFly’s self-drying jacket—I can’t help but wonder what Back to the Future IV released in 2020 would look like. 

Perhaps Marty’s children travel to the year 2170 in a Tesla Model X modified with Doc Brown’s concepts to solve a crisis set into motion by Biff’s great-grandkids. Propellantless propulsion has allowed us to be a multi-planetary species. Space exploration research has helped us solve carbon-neutral transportation and advance our food-tech so we can grow food on-demand in our kitchens. Trash cans power streetlights. We’ve ditched our handheld device vice and live in a more virtual-based environment. Nano-robot medicine is all the rage, tripling our life expectancy, allowing us to be more patient and less wasteful. One can only imagine. 

No matter which decade we travel to, one line uttered by Doc Brown will always ring true.

“I need fuel.”

We need fuel to power any world that we live in. In Back to the Future II, Doc Brown puts a banana peel and unfinished beer into Mr. Fusion to generate the energy they need to get back to the future. I believe it was an internal combustion engine (ICE) running on organic waste. Feel free to nerd out in the comments section.

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Waste-to-Fuel Technology Already Exists

The idea of using our waste to create valuable products is often given the term sustainable economy or circular economy. For consumers, participating in a circular economy isn’t as simple as putting your garbage into your own Mr. Fusion—yet. Collecting, treating and converting waste makes financial sense when done in volume, so commercial facilities do the work of Mr. Fusion on a large scale. 

Commercial-grade applications of waste-to-fuel conversion are in use around the world. The most well-known is incineration. In this process, power is generated by boiling water to generate steam which turns an electric turbine. Despite advancements, incineration does pollute the environment, so it isn’t the cleanest solution.

A Cleaner Circular Economy

Beyond electricity, our waste can be converted into liquid fuel and biogas, or synthetic gas. One of the most exciting things about being part of Nexus PMG is our focus on low carbon-based initiatives. This gives us insight into waste-to-value operations that produce these viable energy sources.

Three main waste-to-value solutions we commonly see are:

Anaerobic Digestion

  • Like the four parts of a cow’s digestion, microorganisms and lack of oxygen break down organic material. 

Pyrolysis

  • High temperatures decompose material. May be used on its own or as part of gasification.

Gasification

  • Steam, pyrolysis and controlled amounts of oxygen are applied to materials to create gas. 

The key to all of these technologies is understanding your feedstock. What type of material does the process depend on? It could be cow manure, kitchen waste, or plastics, just to name a few. All of these can be turned into clean fuel with the right solution, reducing or eliminating our need for non-renewable energy. As my friend Ben Hubbard says, “trash is the new gold.” 

Back to the Solution

No matter how you feel about climate change, the reality is that we as humans create a monumental amount of waste. Maybe I’m the product of too many sci-fi movies, but I don’t see how digging holes to put our trash into is a long-term solution. We need to start getting creative.

In my next articles, we’ll take a deep dive into the three main waste-to-value options I mentioned above and how they can help us be a part of the solution.

Roshan Vani