Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Alternative forms of energy

Fuel from foul
Using food and crop residues, a new breed of entrepreneur looks to cut waste and create energy

By Laurent Belsie and Mary Wiltenburg Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

Forget Iraq, OPEC, and that Alaskan wildlife refuge for the moment. Some of the clues to the world's energy future may lie on your dinner plate.

The plants that grew the rice you're eating also produce rice straw, which is mostly burned today but could be turned into fuel. Corn already produces ethanol, but stalks left in the field have energy potential. And all the country's millions of pounds of leftover chicken and turkey bones could produce millions of barrels of crude oil. The turkey experiment is already under way.

For decades, scientists have worked to turn trash into energy: wood into gasoline and municipal waste into industrial fuel. Some ventures worked; others proved too expensive or unwieldy. Now, a new generation of entrepreneurs is trying to turn the nation's muck into black gold. Armed with better technology and understanding, they're making promising starts.

These conversions, if done correctly, could not only bolster the United States' energy reserves, they could cut its leading sources of waste, starting with the nation's farms.

"We're held hostage by troubles in Venezuela, by uncertainty in Kuwait," says Brian Appel, CEO of Changing World Technologies (CWT), a New York environmental technology company. "Let's take advantage of all this waste and make a product we really need."

CWT has made perhaps the biggest splash by teaming up with food production giant ConAgra Foods Inc. Later this month CWT's $25 million turkey-to-oil processor will start turning wastes from ConAgra's Carthage, Mo., plant into light crude oil and other products.

Jeff Tester, a chemical engineering professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, has visited a CWT pilot plant in Philadelphia and is intrigued by the technology's potential. "This is a good example of a win-win situation," he says. "It's not necessarily the holy grail, but it's an innovative idea."

Using a process called thermal depolymerization, which breaks down organic compounds with water and heat, CWT can make fuel from fowl - or corn waste or municipal sludge, for that matter. The Carthage plant, which will process about 200 tons of animal waste daily, is expected to pump out some 7.6 million gallons of bio-derived oil in its first year.

That's tiny - about the size of a Texas wildcatter's well - even compared to the 2.7 billion gallons of ethanol the US expects to produce this year, largely from corn. But that industry receives government subsidies - something Mr. Appel doesn't receive. At the moment, it costs $15 per barrel to produce oil from the Missouri turkey plant, and costs could drop below $10 as more plants go up, he says. That would put his reprocessed oil on par with conventional drilling costs, roughly between $5 and $13 a barrel.

"Right now the margins are tight," Appel says. "If we really want to reduce [US] dependence on [foreign] oil, we need help to grow more quickly."

The company is also negotiating contracts to recycle municipal sludge, solid waste, and other materials.

Meanwhile, DDS Technologies, a European environmental technology company, is bringing another new waste-recycling system to the US. Already in use by several major Italian companies, the process reuses all the elements of the material it recycles, making it much more efficient than most primary food processors.

"When I look at some of the processes we use to make foods, they're archaic," says the company's COO Kerin Franklin. "The process for making soy milk, it must have been invented by a couple of hippies 20 years ago. You wind up throwing a lot away."

DDS takes all that trash and breaks it down into small enough bits to render it useful on many levels. Take pomace, the stuff left over when oranges and other fruit are squeezed for juice. Currently, fruit processors pay roughly $40 a ton to other companies to haul away the pomace, which they turn into livestock feed. DDS can take the same waste and harvest pectin (used in yogurt, gelatin, marshmallows, and fruit snacks), flavor substitutes (used in baking and animal feed), fiber (used in cosmetics production), and essential oil of orange (used as a flavoring). "Our goal is zero left over,"Ms. Franklin says. "The entire waste stream is utilized."

The US branch of DDS, based in Boca Raton, Fla., hopes to start making use of its innovative air-pressure technology later this year. By accelerating particles of matter then suddenly stopping them, DDS can separate their components much the way a speeding motorcycle, suddenly stopped, would send first the rider's helmet, then the rider, then the bike itself flying through the air.

The company is already working with a major US cityto handle its municipal sludge, and has just signed a 10-year joint venture with biomass-to-ethanol company Xethanol to convert sewage into the sugars used in ethanol production. Because DDS's process uses air and not physical contact with the material, Franklin says, it can assure a higher level of purity than other systems.

While reprocessing agricultural waste has huge potential, no one knows how huge. In a Foreign Affairs article earlier this year, Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, and two coauthors estimated that available agricultural waste could produce 10 times the ethanol that corn does today. But it's unlikely all of it will be reused for energy. Every year some of it gets plowed under, some gets burned, some gets thrown away. Much of the rest - 45 million tons, enough to cover the entire Washington, D.C., area in 17 inches of muck, according to the American Feed Industry Association - is reprocessed into animal feed.

Clearly, if environmental rules continue to stiffen, farmers will be casting about for new solutions. For example: federal regulations ban the burning of rice straw (the detritus left over after harvest) by mid-decade. So the industry is looking for ways to reuse the straw, including ways to process it into energy. Entrepreneurial firms such as CWT and DDS see potential. But some analysts believe such efforts will require federal help to blossom. "There's the potential to accelerate this much, much faster, if this country applies the same sort of aggressive approach we've taken to finding oil," says Dr. Tester of MIT. "But you have to learn by doing it."


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Overlooked long enough...this is his time

Bryant shouldn’t have to wait anymore for MVP
By Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports

Apr 9, 6:36 pm EDT


Kobe Bryant hasn’t always been the best person, the best teammate, the best ambassador for the National Basketball Association. This is the reason so many voters are searching for someone else to vote Most Valuable Player. For this, Bryant can blame himself. This is the price paid for petulance.

Still, Bryant is an MVP. He’s been the best player, a three-time champion and voters must ask themselves: If I don’t vote for him this year, what will it ever take? His talent, his accomplishments, his place in history, command multiple MVPs. This has been a season when everything has come together to make his candidacy unimpeachable.

His time, his trophy.

“You can’t just continue to take what Kobe is doing for granted,” Pistons president and Hall of Famer Joe Dumars said. “The guy is one of the truly great players and he should be recognized as such.”

No one needs historical context to make the case for Bryant this year. His season stands on its own. At 29, this isn’t a lifetime achievement award. Kobe is still the best of the best. MVPs, however, are never won overnight in the NBA. Mostly, it takes constructing credibility over the years. He’s been so great, for so long that Dumars is right: People do take him for granted.

As Mark Heisler’s informal poll in the Los Angeles Times showed, the MVP race appears to be down to Bryant and New Orleans point guard Chris Paul. Someday, Paul is going to be an MVP, a champion. He has saved basketball in New Orleans, passing Steve Nash and Jason Kidd as the best point guard on the planet. There isn’t a player in the league that I love more to talk with, that I love more to watch play, than Paul.

Yet, he will have to go No. 2 on my ballot. He hasn’t been first-team All-NBA. He still hasn’t played in the postseason. His time is coming, and coming fast, but there’s time for Paul. Before Paul and LeBron James and maybe Dwyane Wade are 29 years old, they’ll probably have MVP trophies. Bryant’s wait has been long enough.

AP - Apr 9, 2:09 pm EDT

Those who believe in Bryant’s greatness are forever ripping the voting process, saying it’s a joke that he’ll never been named MVP. Normally, they don’t tell you what year that should’ve happened, who should’ve lost out. Once Tim Duncan had won his two MVP awards, Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were winning, the Lakers losing, and Bryant lost three straight times in his prime. In those years, the mediocre Laker teams crushed his candidacy.

Always, it was this: In the post-Shaq era, Bryant had to be playing for a contender. This was the voter’s mandate. As much as anything, Nowitzki was the best player on the 67-win Mavericks a year ago and it was declared his window, his time. To hear people say that they want to hold off voting to see who finishes the Western Conference with the better record – New Orleans or Los Angeles – is missing the point here.

Bryant doesn’t need the Lakers to finish with the best record in the regular season. When the Lakers are together, yes, they are the most talented team in the NBA. Only, they haven’t been together this season. The Lakers are still fighting for the No. 1 seed with Andrew Bynum out since the middle of January and Pau Gasol arriving in February and missing nine games in March.

The idea that an MVP has to do more with less is nonsense. For coach of the year, it’s a fairer argument. When Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were winning MVPs in the 1980s, who held their rosters against them?

No one ever made Nash reach a conference final – never mind win a title – to give him his first MVP. He came on late in his career to transform himself, but that was never necessary with Bryant. At 29, he’s been great for most of a decade. He’s paid his price for petulance. Joe Dumars is right: No more taking Bryant for granted.

His time, his trophy.