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Creating Energy Out of Waste

waste energy

Could you imagine, one day, using animal waste, wood product leftovers, or even forestry residues as a main energy supply? Today, there are about 90 power plants in the United States that convert organic waste to generate electricity to support nearly 3 million households. [1]InEnTec’s technology, developed at MIT and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, uses a multiple high-temperature process to break down organic waste into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This mixture gas could be burned to produce electricity or converted into other fuel[2].

The current generation of municipal solid waste composed of product packaging, furniture, clothing, food waste causes alarming harm to our environment. In 2017 alone, Americans generated about 258 million tons of Municipal solid waste (MSW); 53% is deposited in landfills, 34.6% of MSW is recycled, and 12.8% is combusted for energy production. A large amount of waste disposal is through burial. Despite many efforts to rid of disposable waste, fully decomposing the waste proves difficult and time consuming, it is hard to fully decompose the waste and always spend a long time. If we could develop some technique to convert MSW into energy, it will not only solve the disposal MSW problem, but also the problem surrounding energy shortage.[3]

chart of trash use

How can one turn waste into energy? One popular solution is incineration. Organic waste, which is made from plant or animal products, contains heat. The heat from this thermal treatment could used as energy. There are even more techniques to convert waste into energy. Biochemical conversion processes including microorganism digestion and fermentation can produce bio-gas. These bio-gases could be used to generate both electricity and heat. Physio-chemical conversions can convert the waste into high-energy fuel pellets which could in turn be used as steam.[4]

To conclude, waste-to-energy facilities produce clean, renewable energy through thermal treatment, biochemical and physio-chemical methods. The growing use of waste-to-energy as a method holds the potential to not only mitigate the MSW production but also provide more sources of energy. However, there are still lots of problem we face, like poor waste segregation, inappropriate technology selection, and operational and maintenance issues. Once these problems are overcome, waste-fueled energy will have a key role in waste treatment around the world.[5]

Jin Xu is a graduate student at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken. He can be contacted at

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