Friday, January 6, 2012

Definition Please - Part II

In our last blog entry we discussed the need for standardized terminology in our emerging field. We talked about how the term ‘gasification’ has been connected to images of cleaner and greener forms of technology. Because of the broad definition of the word, vendors using older technologies have sometimes slapped the term on its technology in an attempt to connect to the positive images of gasification without really cleaning up the process and reducing the emissions its putting into the atmosphere.

Today we’d like to expand on that topic by focusing on the other side. Just as some use the term ‘gasification’ to try to connect to its positive attributes, others (some radical environmental groups) try to link gasification projects to incinerators by reducing them both to the most basic definition and thereby, painting them all with the same smoky-colored brush.

Although both incineration and gasification can be lumped into the category of waste management, the process objectives differ. Although exceptions can be found on both sides, incineration is generally a process focused on destroying solid waste and reducing the amount of trash filling up landfills. Additional air is added to the burning process and extra steps are required post-combustion to reduce the emissions being released into the air. Gasification, on the other hand, converts solid fuel (i.e. trash, etc.) into another form of energy, frequently termed as for “a higher and better use.”

Incinerators have come a long way since Manlove, Alliott & Co. Ltd. built the first (known as a destructor) in 1874 in Nottingham, England. Nowadays environmental regulatory agencies have limits on the emissions a plant can release and most incinerators have instruments that clear the flue gas of gaseous and particulate pollutants.

While most incinerators have cleaned up their act, the image remains tarnished. The average consumer conjures up thoughts of billowing smokestacks upon hearing the word and some have capitalized on those fearsome images to try to stop the implementation of gasifiers as well.

One such example of an organization incorrectly lumping all biomass plants together comes in the form of a case study by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice entitled Incinerators in Disguise. The second paragraph of the paper states:

Today, many dozens of companies are promoting technologies such as pyrolysis, gasification, plasma arc, and catalytic cracking as a way to allegedly eliminate and “recycle” all types of waste into energy. Many of these companies falsely and boldly claim their technology is “pollution-free” and has “no emissions.” Aware of the public’s opposition to incineration, the companies promoting these technologies all claim these are not incinerators but are a “green” alternative to incinerators.

While there may be a rogue company working with plasma arc technology out there that has claimed to be “pollution free”, we at Better BTU find the vast majority of companies instead claim to “reduce emissions” and many will even give a percentage number on the website. The language of this paper seeks to lump all waste-to-energy processes together and label them “hidden incinerators.”

The paper goes on to say:

Despite grandiose claims of industry, the facts prove that these technologies are in reality “incinerators in disguise” that heats the waste materials, and then burn the waste gases and emit dioxin and other pollutants into the air.

What this paper fails to explain is just because a process heats up the waste materials does not make it incineration. Similarly, all waste treatment processes emit a percentage of pollutants into the air – the issue is how much and the reason gasification technology is on the rise is because it produces less pollution than incineration.

The reason the “so-called conversion technologies,” as the paper refers to them, are categorized that way is because they do just that - convert trash into a gas that can be used for other things such as making electricity, chemicals, liquid fuel, etc.

Better BTU Take: At the end of the day, both sides are playing fast and loose with language and they are able to do so because of the broad definitions of terms like ‘gasification’ and ‘incineration’. How about we all spend more time looking at the science and less on the politics?

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