Biofilters cut old landfill carbon footprint

Researchers in the US are testing biofilter systems as a viable alternative to releasing methane from passive landfill vents into the atmosphere. The technology could reduce the overall impact of old landfills on global warming. Details are reported in the current issue of the International Journal of Environmental Engineering.

Organic matter rotting in smaller, old landfill sites generates a slow trickle of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere, amounting to just 2 or 3 kilograms per day per vent. In contrast to controlled methane generate for biofuel from modern, managed landfills, tapping this slow stream of the gas is not viable technologically or economically. However, methane has an infrared activity 21 times greater than carbon dioxide and so represents an important anthropogenic source of this greenhouse gas when attempting to balance the climate change books. Indeed, landfills contribute 12% of worldwide anthropogenic methane emissions due to the decomposition of organic waste.

Old landfills typically have passive gas vents. Methane is simply released into the atmosphere from these vents, or if the rate of emission is high enough it can be burned, or flared. According to Tarek Abichou and Jeffery Chanton of the Florida State University, Jose Morales of Environmental and Geotechnical Specialists, Inc., Tallahassee, Florida and Lei Yuan of Geosyntec Consultants in Columbia, Maryland, methane oxidation has recently been viewed as a more benign alternative to venting or flaring of landfill methane.

The researchers tested two biofilter designs capable of oxidizing methane gas to carbon dioxide and water. Both are packed with so-called methanotrophic bacteria, microbes that digest methane. They found that the radial biofilter design gave a much higher methane oxidation rate than a vertical biofilter. The higher surface area exposed to methane flow led to greater oxygen penetration into the biofilters, essential for microbial digestion. The radial biofilter has a surface area of well over 1.2 square meters whereas the vertical biofilter amounts to just 0.3 square meters area.

The team also found that the average percent oxidation rate of 20% and higher for the radial biofilter was possible when the air temperature was 20 to 36 Celsius, indicating the optimal soil temperature for methanotrophic bacteria to oxidize methane. Vertical biofilters averaged a little over 12% oxidation.

Abichou, T., Yuan, L., Chanton, J., & Morales, J. (2011). Mitigating methane emissions from passive landfill vents: a viable option for older closed landfills International Journal of Environmental Engineering, 3 (3/4) DOI: 10.1504/IJEE.2011.041354

How low can you go?

We’re repeatedly advised to switch off electrical devices, like TVs and DVD players at the mains outlet rather than leaving them in standby mode, to turn to compact fluorescent bulbs and to turn them off when illumination is no longer necessary, to do our laundry at lower temperatures, to run the dishwasher only when it’s full, and to avoid using energy-hungry power showers. All those kilowatts add up to a lot of power wasted if we don’t.

According to a new study into energy use in the UK, by following this advice we might be reducing our carbon footprint a lot more than we thought. Conversely, those who don’t follow the advice might be wasting far more energy than the government thinks and so contributing more to carbon dioxide emissions and so anthropogenic global warming and climate change. Writing in the journal Energy Policy this month, Adam Hawkes, of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, has calculated that the figures used by government advisors to estimate the possible carbon dioxide reduction possible might be 60% too low.

Hawkes points out that power stations that supply electricity vary in their carbon dioxide emission rates, depending on the fuel they use: those that burn fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) have higher emissions than those driven by nuclear power and wind. In general only the fossil fuel power stations are able to respond instantly to changes in electricity demand. He says that the government should keep track of changing carbon emission rates from power stations to ensure that policy decisions for reducing emissions are based on robust scientific evidence.

Hawkes used 60 million data points for electricity production each half-hour period by each power station in Great Britain from 2002 to 2009 and calculated the emissions for each different type of generator by examining government data showing their average annual fuel use. He then calculated emissions rates attributed to a small change in electricity demand from these two data sets.

SPT86-montalto-power-station (Credit: David Bradley)
Montalto power station (Credit: David Bradley)

His new study suggests that excluding power stations with low carbon emission rates, such as wind and nuclear power stations, and focusing on those that deal with fluctuating demand would give a more accurate emission figure. Hawkes’ calculations show that, 0.43 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed is 60 percent lower than the actual rates observed between 2002 and 2009 (0.69 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour), meaning that policy studies are underestimating the impact of people reducing their electricity use.

“One way governments are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change is to encourage people to reduce their energy consumption and change the types of technologies they use in their homes,” Hawkes says. “However, the UK government currently informs its policy decisions based on an estimate that, according to my research, is lower than it should be.”


Energy Policy, 2010, online

Yet another supernova

Just when you’d given up hope of another starburst, a third type comes along unannounced! This third class of previously unidentified supernova could help explain some anomalous observations in the night sky and even how our bodies come to contain so much calcium.

Until recently, astronomers had assumed there were just two types of supernovae. The first two types of supernova are either hot, young giants that explode on to the scene violently as they collapse under their own weight, or old, dense white dwarves (type a1) that undergo a thermonuclear explosion to briefly add their light to the night sky.

However, a third class appeared in telescope images in early January, 2005 and scientists, seeing that it had recently begun the process of exploding, started collecting and combining data from different telescope sites around the world, measuring both the amount of material thrown off in the explosion and its chemical composition.

Avishay Gal-Yam and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and teams in Canada, Chile, Italy, UK, and USA, soon realised that the new supernova was neither old and dense nor young and hot.

There was too little material being ejected by the 2005 supernova for it to be an exploding giant, but its remote location from stellar nurseries suggested it was old. Moreover, its chemical makeup did not match the second type of supernova. The scientists turned to a computer simulation to see if they could figure out what kind of stellar processes could give rise to this anomalous kind of starburst.

Type Ia supernovae are primarily composed of carbon and oxygen as seen in their spectra, but the newly discovered supernova has unusually high levels of calcium and titanium which derive from nuclear reactions of helium not carbon and oxygen. However, the astronomers were initially at a loss to explain the source of the helium. Their simulations suggested that a pair of white dwarves might have been involved, with one assimilating helium from the other. When the thief star’s helium load rises past a certain point, the explosion occurs. “The donor star is probably completely destroyed in the process, but we’re not quite sure about the fate of the thief star,” says Gal-Yam.

Helium theft may have led to a third class of supernova that gives rise to the calcium in your bones and the titanium in a replacement hip! (Credit: Gal-Yam, Weizmann Institute of Science.

These new supernovae are relatively dim, so may not be as rare as they at first seem. This might explain why calcium is so prevalent in the universe and so in life on earth. The existence of radioactive titanium from these supernovae might also preclude the need for exotic explanations, such as invoking dark matter, of positrons at the heart of our galaxy. “Dark matter may or may not exist,” says Gal-Yam, “but these positrons are perhaps just as easily accounted for by the third type of supernova.”


Avishay Gal-Yam homepage