The rise of landfill gas to energy

The average person in the U.S. produces nearly 1,130 pounds (513 kg) of waste per year. The majority of this waste ends up in landfill. When the garbage decomposes it gives off methane and CO2. Methane is the most abundant organic compound on earth and traps 20 times more heat than CO2, making it a potent greenhouse gas, but it can also be a source for environmentally friendly energy.

The trash on a landfill is separated from the natural world by thick plastic liner, which prevents the effluvia from decomposing garbage from entering the environment and contaminating the groundwater. The waste in the landfill undergoes anaerobic digestion and generates gases. The gases so produced are called landfill gases (LFG). Old landfills have pipes that collect the biogas, which is then burned to prevent the gas from entering the atmosphere. Closed flares filter out the contaminants before the smoke is released. Flaring the biogas at the landfill is probably the most common way of dealing with it. But it is an unfortunate waste of a potentially valuable fuel source. These gases can be burned and looked up to as a source of renewable energy or vehicle fuel. The LFG comprises of almost 50% methane, which is the same gas found in natural gas. This LFG can be used to generate electricity, by burning it as a fuel in a gas turbine or steam boiler. Compared to other hydrocarbon fuels, burning methane produces less carbon dioxide.

Programs in the U.S. to capture and use the methane from landfills have been encouraged through tax credits and grants. For instance Bannock County Landfill in Idaho has a plan together with the county to build methane wells to capture the gas from its landfill. Once it’s bottled up, it will run a specially built generator and the county will sell the electricity it produces to Idaho Power.

Once converted to natural gas, the biogas serves a good and environmentally friendly purpose as vehicle fuel.
Research is even being conducted by NASA at the moment, on methane’s potential as a rocket fuel.

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