Waste Not, Want Not

Article Published: Feb. 25, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Waste Not, Want Not

ASU students build a greenhouse heated by waste fuels.

Photo submitted

Burying coal may be the best way to ensure a plentiful harvest.

Appalachian State University student Michael Uchal shared with a fellow student, Eric Urban, a drawing he had made for a waste renewal system. The ideas set out in his drawing may renew the globe.

"I was interested by the way the system utilized a waste product to begin with and then utilized its own waste (in the form of heat) during use," Urban said.

The two planned on writing a proposal for Appalachian State University. They waited till the final week before submission deadlines and found out that it would take at least five days for the Office of Student Research to review the proposals and send them to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"Uchal and I stayed up and worked for 65 hours straight to get it done," Urban said.

Toward the end of their drive to finish, two other graduate students at the university, Anna Erwin and Daniel Law, helped to proofread and edit their work.

The grant they submitted to the EPA was accepted, and they received a P3 grant to create biochar production cells. The P3 stands for "People, Prosperity and Planet," and the first round funding for the project is $10,000.

In the grant, Uchal proposed the development of a system that would take waste from the community and gasify it to create electricity and biochar.

"The total process could be potentially carbon negative in that it stores carbon from the atmosphere, while increasing soil fertility, as well as potentially increasing crop production in small greenhouses, " Uchal said.

Biochar acts as a coral reef for nutrients in the soil in which it is buried. It is a form of wood charcoal that can be used to augment soil for plant growth. The process that Uchal has proposed, and has been testing with grant money, uses gasification to create biochar.

In a low oxygen environment, biomass and wastes are heated, and, as a result, combustible gasses are removed. Carbon, methane and hydrogen are removed, along with others, and are then ignited to create heat. The gasses can be further processed to be used in internal combustion engines. The refinement process is called pyrolisis.

Biochar is the outcome of the process.

Uchal honors his teaching mentor, Andy Horton from West Virginia, who introduced him to the gasification process. It was used in World War II to fuel internal combustion engine vehicles with wood, he said.

A group of students that include Uchal and Urban will be heading to Washington D.C. in April to vie for the $75,000 first place grant funding from the EPA. Since their initial encouragement with the P3 grant, Uchal, Urban and others have been fabricating the biochar makers.

When the chemicals that are extracted are ignited, the pipes that run from the heating tanks spew flames. They are working on refining the gases that are byproducts of the process into more accessible sources of energy.

The science and mechanics of this project may be intriguing, but the outcome is tremendous. There are some who believe that biochar will save the planet from nutritional scarcity. As more land is used to produce crops, the nutrients, which were in the soil, are used up. If an area loses tree coverage due to deforestation or fire, the nutrients, which are replenished through rainfall, are washed into streams that return to the oceans. Excess nutrients in water systems kill sea life.

Some farmers have known to bury tree sections beneath their farmlands in order for the nutrients to be stored and released. Biochar works similarly and at the same time captures carbon. When plants die and begin to rot, they release the carbon, which they have been using to grow back into the atmosphere. Biochar helps to capture this carbon.

The group from Appalachian State is working hard to make a difference in the world. They are an example of what years of research can create. When they go to D.C. in April, they will be judged alongside students from all over the country. Whether they win the grant from the EPA or not, the young men who have started this project could enable future generations a healthier life.

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