When the LPG-based three-wheeler bearing number QS-7775 took off with biogas as the fuel derived from university canteen waste and gliricidia leaves, it was quite an important demonstration last Friday (18) at the University of Moratuwa premises.
It is important to realise that at least the fuel in this manner is not a burden to the economy as it had been derived from waste, which in fact is a problem to our civilised living. One can of course quip that it is our own uncivilised behaviour that had made waste the problem that it is today.
Again, at present with tension mounting up again in the Middle East and with demand affected by supply constraints, it will mean prices rising once more, with the typical fossil fuels that we are quite used to, or as President Bush once said, addicted to!
Unaffordable in the long run
Sri Lanka spends a sizeable amount of foreign exchange on fossil fuels and today we have also added coal to our portfolio of fuel requirements. This is simply not affordable in the long run though it may be a necessity right now.
It is even more worrying when one considers that some of this valuable exchange is actually generated in Middle Eastern countries through sweat and tears. As Eng. Parakrama Jayasinghe, President of the Bioenergy Association used to present, we bring money from the Middle East and then collect all of that again from across the country, dispatching it back to its origin in return for crude oil and other refined products.
Market forces and supply chains are kept quite busy but what do we realise as a net benefit at the end of this complicated fragmented exercise is seriously questionable. Of course, simple answers are not readily available due to the well-entrenched nature of current energy systems.
However, we must realise that present oil and coal based systems have evolved to present day positions over a long period of time and we must be prepared to give equal or more serious understanding when alternative systems are trying to emerge.
Unfortunately, incomparable and unfair comparisons are made when we consider existing systems versus alternatives and some of the purely economic judgments negate developments of the latter.
From a national perspective, this is even more unfortunate as we only have alternative systems when it comes to energy and it is up to us to rise up to the occasion in developing acceptable decentralised energy delivery systems that meet national aspirations in a pioneering manner. Innovative approaches are called for as not many textbook examples exist out there.
Environmentally benign technologies
The world, after the current Japanese tsunami and the resultant nuclear accident at Fukishima nuclear plant, is awakening to the fact of engaging environmentally benign technologies.
When nature having turned violent equally engages a hazardous enterprise serving humanity to exist, the resultant impacts are difficult to manage and repercussions extend far beyond the point of engagement.
The Chernobyl accident showed the world this once. The current situation reminds us that increasingly, some of our modern technologies may have to offer apologies to ecology.
Not all renewable energy systems are alike and understanding these differences is important.
Sri Lanka for a long time has been interested in alternative fuels. The interest rises when world market prices of fuels rises and drops when the prices drop. This should not be the way a nation intent on some form of energy self-reliance should work and function.
The breathing space gained should be meaningfully utilised knowing very well these cyclical behaviours are always going to happen.
Another aspect that should always be at the back of the mind is that these fossil fuels are a dwindling resource and we are going to see an end to these in the not-too-distant future.
We can see that service station owners and tax collectors are quite happy when year-on-year figures of vehicle imports grow explosively in our country. However, this happiness cannot be shared by all parties alike and certainly not by the planning community in the long run.
The demonstration of the three-wheeler run utilising biogas was towards the end of a project supported by the then Ministry of Science and Technology. The project was ably supported by lots of private sector inputs such as from Master Divers.
The obstacles were plenty as well. Hence, lots of knowledge resides now with the research team beyond the fact of biogas as a transport fuel. This was not a novel demonstration, nor was it a first for the region, let alone the globe.
In countries such as Sweden the transport system uses biogas quite well including a train. The European Union today believes biogas to be the best fuel for transport in terms of greenhouse gas emissions as well as considering well-to-wheel efficiencies. History also informs us on the possibility. Harold Bate, a British farmer, ran his 1953 Hilman car with methane generated from poultry waste long time back.
These developments should not escape the local planners and factoring these opportunities should happen quite quickly as these are viable options for us since for as long as we live, biodegradable waste is going to be associated with us. It is organic wastes that the process needs and leafy matter too can well support it as raw material.
What was achieved and demonstrated by the university team was an ability to work through the whole process from waste-to-fuel and demonstrate the waste-to-wheel opportunity. We have also outlined an opportunity to have local gas supply grids, thus supporting thermal energy needs of local communities. Definitely more details need to be worked out and this is perhaps a beginning of an even more difficult journey.
It is important that as a nation we pool our resources and engages in projects of this nature and take them forward from these points of demonstration. An interesting example can be cited for garbage mountains.
We were having a long standing issue with the Bloemendhal dump site in Colombo, which had risen to be a small man made mountain. There were many proposals and discussions.
An interesting example is the garbage mountain that was outside Israel’s capital Tel Aviv – the Hiriya Landfill. Today it has been capped, land fill gas which is essentially biogas is extracted, cleaned to produce methane, electricity is produced and a pumping station for vehicles planned by the side.
The waste mountain is known as the Ariel Sharon Park and is also a study centre for waste management! They also claim of the possibility for tourists to have a breathtaking view of Tel Aviv from atop the mountain – a possibility too with Bloemendhal! All achieved by science and technology coming together with intent to serve the local community.
Lot of learning
There is lot of learning when a project of this nature is carried out internally. Totally outsourcing may mean you only pump out some of your hard-earned money while also spending a considerable amount of time in endless negotiations, but many lessons that could be learnt will be lost.
If one looks back, solid waste in our cities and especially in Colombo has been a topic that has been much studied and discussed. If one piles up the number of proposals and documents generated on this topic, we may see a mountain of its own, beating perhaps the heights reached by garbage at Bloemendhal!
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher, stated that the new clothing for the planet was garbage. We certainly see the applicability of this comment when we leave our homes and walk about – perhaps that is why three quarters have come into fashion!
When are we going to put our heads together to realise some of the potential benefits that we have from our waste instead of ignoring it or suffering from the presence of it? ‘Our waste to our energy’ is a dream to work on and a dream that can be realised.
(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org)