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Hydrogen from waste
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Getting rid of household waste water from sinks, toilets, baths and the like is a growing problem around the world. In modern cities, such water finds its way into municipal sewage treatment plants, where processing yields huge amounts of sewage sludge. But instead of disposing of this sludge as waste, people are realizing that it can be a valuable source of renewable energy.     

     So rather than simply dumping the sludge or using it for cement filler and other applications, there is a growing movement to utilize the material as biomass, to produce hydrogen gas for fuel cell vehicles, as a source of heat to generate electricity, and to make fertilizer and fuel pellets.

Hydrogen power

Fukuoka is the largest city in the Kyushu region in southern Japan, with a population of 1.5 million. It is also home to the world's first serious effort to commercialize hydrogen derived from sewage sludge.


     Mitsubishi Kakoki and Kyushu University are collaborating with the city as part of the Fukuoka Hydrogen Town project to establish a means of generating hydrogen from sewage sludge and supply it for fuel cell vehicles.

     To process sewage sludge, waste water from homes and the like travels through sewer pipes to reach a sewage treatment plant, where it is collected and treated. This waste water contains human waste and other solid material, so the first step is to separate out the water component and decompose the organic materials using microorganisms. Sewage sludge consists of the original solid material plus the remains of the microorganisms used in the treatment process.

     Currently, most of this sewage sludge is incinerated or otherwise disposed of at great expense.     

     But Fukuoka is interested in the beneficial uses of this sludge. It uses a process to heat and break down the sludge to generate biogas containing large amounts of methane. It then processes this biogas using a special facility that extracts only methane, and reacts this with steam at high temperature to make 99.999% pure hydrogen, exceeding international quality standards.

     The water treatment facility in Fukuoka where this is taking place is also equipped with a hydrogen station for fuel cell vehicles. It's estimated that up to 2 million fuel cell vehicles could be plying the roads in 2025 in Japan, and based on that prediction, the city calculates it can turn a profit on such fueling stations in a decade.

     Fukuoka has a history of reusing resources. It lacks a so-called Class A river system, which is the designation for systems deemed important for the national economy and people's lives, so in 1978, a dry year, it was forced to impose restrictions on water use for 287 consecutive days. The city was the first in Japan to reuse processed waste water for toilets, and to this day it has more facilities for supplying this kind of recycled water than any other city in Japan. The citywide ethos for the reuse of resources helps explain why it is now tackling the conversion of sewage sludge into hydrogen.

The Museum of shit
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  Like most people, Gianantonio Locatelli—farmer, art collector, visionary—is not naturally drawn to shit. Castelbosco, his farm in the lush pastures south-west of Piacenza, northern Italy, produces dairy almost exclusively for Grana Padano cheese. Every day, enough milk flows from his 2,500 cows to make more than 130 rich, nutty wheels of the stuff.

The cows also excrete a vast amount of shit—at least 30 kilos per day. Taken together, their daily dung deposit would fill a school classroom from floor to ceiling, and weigh so much that if it was loaded onto a Boeing 737, the plane would never get off the runway.

Locally, disposing of industrial levels of farm waste can be a major problem. Globally, it is an existential threat. In 2008, Locatelli did what smart farmers do, and installed a biogas generator to turn methane from the excrement into electricity, but this still left him with huge quantities of de-methanated crap.

In a pioneering application of new technology, he began extracting urea from the waste to make plastic (otherwise made from crude oil), and using leftover slurry to make 90-percent-dung, construction-grade bricks, playfully dubbed “merdacotta,” instead of terracotta. Even the water piped around his machinery to keep it cool is being recycled, diverted to heat an entire village nearby.

Rather than leave this new poop factory as an eyesore on the Italian landscape, Locatelli then commissioned major British artist David Tremlett in 2011 to turn the site into monumental art works. Not long after that, a chat with architect Luca Cipelletti marked the birth of Museo della Merda—The Shit Museum—a public display at the farm showcasing its ground-breaking system of sustainable agriculture.

“Anyone can come and see how shit is transformed into energy, urea, plastic, bricks,” Cipelletti tells Quartz. “The point is to transform every part of the material in order to arrive at zero—where there’s no waste.”

Spread across nine rooms, each chamber of Museo della Merda hosts sculpted, stylised, or otherwise reimagined shit in installations addressed, in a fairly free way, to waste and transformation. In keeping with this latter theme, the exhibits are all temporary, but at the museum’s opening on April 27, 2015, a striking installation by Alberto Pasetti gave a taste of things to come. In a darkened room, shelves of green jars glow against one wall, illuminated by genetically engineered bioluminescent bacteria, fed by methane gas: biological, artifical light.

Cipeletti says he wants Locatelli’s museum to be a place where “we push the subject”, but a poo is a many-splendored thing, and the Museo della Merda is taking on a vast topic.

Shit, though no one wants to think about it, is one of the biggest issues facing the world today. A child dies every 15 seconds due to a lack of adequate sanitation, diarrhoea caused by ingesting feces is a bigger killer than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and measels combined, and almost two-thirds of people alive today have no access to a toilet. Perhaps Locatelli’s “zero-waste” system could be applied to human shit to the same smart, ecological effect, but sewer systems are all designed to mix shit with other toxic chemical waste and blow it out to sea.

Perhaps the only place in the world where sustainable thinking about shit has been applied is in Rwandan prisons, where inmates cook and grow all their food using biogas and fertiliser made from their own excrement.

First things first. “We’re not so pretentious that we want to solve everything,” says Cipelletti. “The most important thing is to create consciousness about the subject – that this stuff is not waste. Then we can study how to reuse human shit.”

So when will the museum’s toilet connect to the biogas digester? Cipelletti laughs: “the toilet is super normal.” For the moment, at least. 

Useable materials from waste
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The waste in your body might not be as much of a waste as you think. At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers have announced that they are working on a way to extract tons of valuable metals from sewage.

A study published in Environmental Science and Technology earlier this year found that the waste from 1 million Americans might contain metal (including gold, silver, titanium, lead, and zinc) worth up to $13 million. With nearly 320 million people living in the United States, that's a substantial goldmine--if scientists can figure out how sift the valuables from the sludge.

Kathleen Smith from the U.S. Geological Survey is working with several cities to analyze the solid waste for precious metals, to see exactly how much and what kinds of metals might be found at wastewater treatment plants. In some places, the concentration of gold is about the same as the amount found in a natural mineral deposit.

How does gold get into solid waste to begin with? "There are metals everywhere," Smith says in a press release, "in your hair care products, detergents, even nanoparticles that are put in socks to prevent bad odors."

Getting them back out again will be the tricky part. Smith and her colleagues are looking into leachates, chemicals that can draw metal out of rock. Leachates are generally terrible for the environment, but Smith and other researchers hope that if they are only used in wastewater treatment plants that those dangerous side effects might be contained.

"In the other part of the project, we're interested in collecting valuable metals that could be sold, including some of the more technologically important metals, such as vanadium and copper that are in cell phones, computers and alloys," Smith said.

So sometime in the future, if you say "my cellphone is a piece of crap," you might be more accurate than you care to know.

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