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The Straight Poop

August 10, 2100 - Say what you like, I think this is exciting: in Orange County, California, human waste is being turned into hydrogen and electricity, and then the hydrogen is used to run cars. An experimental fuel cell makes this possible. Its usefulness will be tested during the next three years at the Fountain Valley Sewage Treatment Plant, where a filling station for the area's hundred or so hydrogen cars will operate. Should the fuel cell prove reliable and economically viable, Fountain Valley could become a major stop on California's incipient Hydrogen Highway (HH).

As things stand right now, moving the HH in the direction of functionality is happening, albeit hesitantly. Without the cars, there's no need for filling stations. Without filling stations, the cars aren't going anywhere. The good news is that new stations are slated to open in two Orange County communities soon. The ultimate goal of having 12 to 14 stations up and running to serve Southern California as part of a state alternative vehicles program seems achievable.

What is the impact of fuel cell production on greenhouse gas emissions? More good news - there is in fact no addition to the carbon dioxide normally emitted at the plant by the sewage. It's merely being diverted for a different purpose (that of being processed into hydrogen). The waste gas is first sent to the treatment plant's "digesters," where bacteria break down the sewage. The digested gas, mostly methane, passes through a pre-treatment system - largely for the removal of impurities - before flowing into a fuel cell. There it combines with heat and steam to generate hydrogen.

This is where it really gets interesting. The resulting hydrogen is next subjected to an electrochemical reaction, which produces electricity. Amazing, right? It gets better: the electricity generates more heat and steam, which is recycled and combined with methane to yield more hydrogen! The engineers at Fountain Valley are understandably proud, since no other agency has succeeded in producing both hydrogen and electricity.

The good news just keeps coming. If more electricity is needed at a particular time, more can be produced; if more or less hydrogen is required, more or less will be generated. The result is 100 percent utilization. In this very wasteful world of ours, the sound of the words "no waste" (no pun intended) is a really good sound. The sanitation district has been using methane to operate lighting and other electrical systems for years. Heat from the system can be recycled as needed.

Honestly - does it get any better than this? Like the man said, everybody poops. Ergo everybody has a sanitation district, everybody treats sewage. Surely this is a transferable technology. The U.S. Dept. of Energy is helping to fund this project, along with two state agencies. The fuel cell is made by Fuel Cell Energy, Inc., of Connecticut, and Air Products and Chemical, Inc., of Pennsylvania, is heading up the project. Once the three year trial is up, every state in the union should be lined up to find out what California has learned. This is something we all need to know about - the sooner, the better!

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