Engineers are Transforming the Way We Look at Waste

by Modis on October 18, 2017

Waste is no longer something to just dispose of. It is becoming an important tool in providing energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From using waste as airplane fuel and providing home heating, to generating electricity and being integral to circular economies and smart cities, engineers all over the world are learning to look at waste in different ways.

Waste Not, Wood Not

UK company, Chrysalix Technologies, is a spin-out from Imperial College London that is using waste wood combined with agricultural by-products and sustainably grown biomass to create a green replacement for crude oil.

It’s doing this by developing an innovative biomass fractionation process using ionic liquids, which are solvents comprised exclusively of ions that melt at temperatures below 100°C. The team has developed its own ionic liquids for use in the process that is lower cost than the traditionally expensive versions available to buy.

The technology was featured at the Climate-KIC Nordic start-up’s event in September 2017, which provides an opportunity to connect the most promising new cleantech businesses with potential customers and investors. Climate-KIC is the European Union’s climate innovation project and this latest event was part of Oslo Innovation Week.

The team at Chrysalix is headed by COO, Florence Gschwend, whose PhD project at Imperial College focused on the use of metal treated waste wood for biorefinery applications.

Sewage Automobile Fuel

Global automobile giant, Toyota, which has been at the forefront of greener vehicle development, is hoping to drive up sales of its hydrogen fuel cell cars, the Mirai, by creating its own hydrogen from human sewage at Fukuoka City’s Central Water Processing Plant.

Sustainability-focused website, progrss, reported that the plant has the capacity to produce enough biogas to power 600 cars a day. Hydrogen-powered cars emit no greenhouse gases and are believed to be the best alternative to traditional gasoline-powered cars in terms of performance.

So if water processing plants the world over could be equipped to transform sewage into hydrogen then the transformation of the automobile industry could be a big step in the right direction for climate-change mitigation.

A More Sustainable Future

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that globally the transport sector is responsible for 14 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions and that 95 percent of the world’s transportation energy comes from petroleum-based fuels, largely gasoline and diesel, which are burned for road, rail, air and marine transportation.

Projects like Toyota’s and new technologies, such as the one being developed by Chrysalix, are transforming how energy will be created in the future and will help the transport sector become more sustainable. As will the British Airways initiative that will see it partner with renewable fuels experts, Velocys, to build new plants that create airline fuel from household waste. Items such as nappies and plastic food containers that would normally go to landfill will instead power jet engines. So a double environmental bonus.

What does this all mean for the engineering jobs of the future? Well, environmental engineering jobs are already predicted to be one of the top five in-demand roles in the coming years. The challenges the world faces around resource management and climate change are big: the global population is growing at around 140 people per minute and the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 150 years, most of that in the last 35.

So engineers today are encouraged to think about how they can use their skills to develop new solutions that minimize and clean up air and water pollution, expand recycling and improve waste management by turning it into green energy. The works of these engineers give hope for a chance at a more sustainable future.

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