Every story has a starting point. Seemingly disparate elements are brought together, and a picture which has substance emerges, literally from thin air. I keep emphasizing that there is nothing called waste, but a resource, with each by-product of a process being a raw material for another process. This calls for a radical shift in mindset and throwing aside of in-the-box thinking with regard to the resource called waste. There is no choice but to think of radically new solutions, if the human race is to survive, healthily. Unhealthily, it will become extinct.

Environmental DestructionI’m taking forward the point that was made in my previous piece, (‘Kitchen “Waste”, Surplus Power, and No Pollution’). The trigger for this piece was a technical article in semiconductor-today.com, regarding the combining of Aluminium Oxide (Al2O3) and Silicon Dioxide (SiO2) for a new type of LED, capable of emitting double the amount of light as existing ones, by Chinese scientists.

We have reached a particular stage of economic and industrial development, in India and China, which can’t be rolled back. However, some of the effects of development have reached a disastrous stage, because shareholder priority has been given more importance than people priority, economic benefits over health. The emphasis solely on profits has created situations which could have been avoided. In most cases the companies and governments involved have been aware of the consequences of their actions, and are only galvanized into preventive modes when there is a public outcry which cannot be ignored, or a disastrous situation which cannot be “contained”. (You can be a billionaire or even a trillionaire, but in the end you can’t eat money, [you require farmers, herders, and fishermen], and you can’t drink money, [you require unpolluted lakes, rivers, and aquifers]. Poison the land and sources of water and everything dies).

An immediate destructive process that comes to mind — where the greed for profits by oil companies has outweighed disastrous consequences — is what is known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Sounds very innocuous. The consequences of fracking for human, animal and bovine populations,  and agriculture have been poisoning of ground water and triggering of earthquakes. Between 17 June and 24 June, 2015, Oklahoma was jolted by 35 earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 due to fracking — see details here), and earlier in 2015 there was a 4.6 magnitude earthquake in Northern British Columbia see details here.

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water and chemicals deep into the earth to fracture shale rock beds and release natural gas for extraction. (Brennan Linsley/The Associated Press)

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water and chemicals deep into the earth to fracture shale rock beds and release natural gas for extraction. (Brennan Linsley/The Associated Press)

To come back to to the start of this piece, using “waste” as a resource. We’ll use as an example a process which figures prominently in all discussions regarding pollution and climate change — coal-fired thermal power plants. These plants have been blamed as the leading source of industrial pollution all over the world.

coal-power-plant-510They can’t be wished away, because without electricity, modern life as we know it would come to a grinding halt. It has been reported that China is shutting down four large coal-fired plants, and replacing them with gas-fired ones. Not a solution really because that brings us back to fracking, which as the world has realized is a very destructive process.

Coal-fired plants generate as a by-product a very fine ash called fly ash. Which brings us to the main element of our story, using mountains of fly ash all over the world as a resource for creating valuable products.

According to a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the amount of fly ash expected to be generated by the end of 2015 in India, is likely to touch 200 million tonnes per annum (mtpa). It is a toxic pollutant dumped in what are euphemistically called “fly ash ponds”. This is a favourite response of the human species, dumping. Dump ash in ponds, dump nuclear waste in caverns, dump household and other waste in landfills, dump effluents in rivers, and so on. Dumping doesn’t eliminate the problem, it only creates another series of problems.  [I have not touched upon the quantities of fly ash in USA, UK, China, and other countries].

Companies have been prodded to use it for building blocks, bricks, and tiles, but the off-take still remains limited. However, it can be used for making more valuable materials than bricks and tiles, should people liberate themselves from thinking in isolation about processes. (As environmentally wise people keep saying, plan projects to use all by-products as resources, so that there is zero-waste).

I am presenting one possibility. Fly ash particles consist of silicon dioxide, alumina, oxides of iron, calcium, and magnesium and toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic, cobalt, and copper. Which leads us to what we see below, gems, and what are gems doing in a piece on using “waste” products as resources, and what is their connection with fly ash? The short answer is, that the chemical composition of what we call gems, are made up of all the metals and materials present in fly ash. The thrust of my argument here is to convert fly ash,  into something of high value.

Gemstones-1No! I am not being woolly-headed.

RCA filed a patent way back in 1948 for producing synthetic gemstones. Quoting from two patent documents, filed decades ago:

1. The crystals prepared by the present process possess a unique interstitial or superlattice structure not found in any prior art synthetic or naturally occurring crystalline compound. The hardness and index of refraction of the present crystals is considerably greater than the garnets which also contain CaO and SiO as major constituents. Hence, while the present crystals may be prepared from inexpensive raw materials as may be the garnets, the extreme hardness and brilliance of my crystals permit their use as heavy-duty abrasives and as decorative stones of gem quality.

2. . . . aluminium oxide, calcium carbonate and silicon dioxide were placed in a silica crucible and melted with an oxygen rock gas torch. The clear melt was then permitted to cool slowly in a fire brick furnace. The result was the formation of a series of large, clear crystals having a weight of up to 50 carats. These crystals were cut and polished using conventional gem-cutting techniques to prepare gem quality stones having an extremely high degree of brilliance.

To give you a sense of perspective, the time taken to treat corundum, Al2O3, (to make Rubies) is 8–12 hours non-stop at 1800–2000° C. Sapphires are also composed of Al2O3. The presence of different minerals and metals give them their colours.

This leads us to a renewable energy technology, solar, for dealing with a waste by-product of a non-renewable energy process, coal, the Solar Furnace.

Image credit Florian.

Image credit Florian.

This is the largest Solar Furnace in the world at Odeillo in the Pyrénées-Orientales in France, opened in 1970. It employs an array of plane mirrors to gather sunlight, reflecting it onto a larger curved mirror. The Solar  Furnace  consists of 10,000 concave mirrors that reflect and focus the sun’s rays on a square diagonal of 40 inches. Diameter mirror construction is 54 metres. An array of mirrors acts as a parabolic reflector, concentrating and focussing light. The temperature at the focal point, can reach 3500° C with optimum positioning of the mirrors.

So a process using renewable energy can be used to create value out of a polluting  by-product of non-renewable process, considered a waste material.

There are a lot of creative minds out there. I’m sure they can come up with a whole range of high value products which can be made from fly ash.

All I’m doing is bringing the elements of a story together.

To come back to pollution from coal. The replacement of coal-fired plants would be ultimately renewable energy plants. Coal plants can be made non-polluting, but the investment required to retro-fit them may not be available with the owners. It would involve using the “waste” thermal energy from the cooling towers (to cut down on the water required for cooling), and exhaust stacks. Recovery of syn-gas from the smoke of the exhaust stacks, and scrubbing of the leftover exhaust gas, so that one has near zero-pollution. Underground gasification of coal as a process is as disastrous  as fracking. [The argument used here is that these processes are “controlled”. Nuclear reactors also use “controlled” fission, excepting when they go out of control, and their disastrous and poisonous effects last for generations].

So heating of boilers with gas instead of coal would be a transitory solution, but better than using coal. A big positive, no ash generation, so one polluting by-product is eliminated this way.

Solar appears to be promising, I say promising because conversion efficiencies are not what they should be, power is available for a limited duration, and a lot of energy — mental, physical, industrial — is being expended in trying to develop storage solutions for non-sunlight hours. (I have followed solar developments for over four decades now, and I think I know a little bit about it).

Power can be generated from wind for practically 24 hours, but this source is locational. The factor of lower wind speeds can be dealt with by using installations based on the Venturi principle, with the advantage of generators being placed underground. This particular innovation makes it possible to spread wind generators over a wider geographical area, and does away with the eyesore of huge towers, noise pollution from them, and fatal danger to bird populations.

A non-glamorous low-tech—high-tech non-polluting solution, which will be cheaper than solar or wind, for 24-hour power generation has been suggested by me in my previous piece on this blog, (with the advantage of no landfills).

Air Pollution: Smog

For many years now the refrain has been, can smog be far behind now that winter is here. [Specific to Delhi, but equally applicable to Beijing or any other city].

Personal or public vehicles using internal combustion engines cannot be wished away, till the time non-polluting engines using electricity, or hydrogen, or something still to be developed, replace them. An excellent public transportation system, with last-mile connectivity has to be in place, to encourage people not to use personal vehicles. [Vehicle manufacturers and governments have to get together on this].

Adopting an adversarial policy by saying “ban this”, “close that” or “finish that”, will not work till alternatives are suggested and put in place. Otherwise instead of cooperation, it pits the users against the environmentalists, and creates situations which do not solve the problem at hand. One can stop something that has not been started, but one requires solutions where something has been in existence for a period of time. Otherwise we will have confrontations and no solutions.

The only way is to put in place short-term solutions to deal with the problem, till the long-term change takes place.

An example. Banning polythene bags. Won’t work. What about all the other plastic articles, why just one item. They should be banned too. Let their use continue till an alternative is in place. The immediate solution is to have a good collection system for all plastic waste. Involve NGO’s and rag pickers (I prefer calling them resource-collectors) — municipalities have totally failed here, and send the waste to be converted to diesel. This has to be a combined effort of education of citizens, (the majority lack basic civic sense), fines for littering, and a good collection system. For instance around 25,00,000 litres of milk is distributed in plastic poly-packs everyday in Delhi. This is a valuable resource being wasted. The diesel produced can be distributed in rural areas for powering pump-sets and other applications. It burns cleaner than the diesel made from crude oil.

Long-term: India has done nothing about encouraging the growth of Industrial Hemp as a crop, from which bio-degradable plastics can be made, (amongst 25,000 other items like paper and textiles). Hemp paper can be recycled 7 times against 3 times for paper made from wood pulp. (See here to find out more).

Hemp is the miracle plant of our time, breathing in 4x the carbon dioxide (CO2) of trees during it’s quick 12-14 week growing cycle. Trees take 20 years to mature vs 4 months for Industrial Hemp! Our forests are being cut down 3x faster than they can grow! One acre of hemp produces as much cellulose fibre pulp as 4.1 acres of trees!!! (Dewey & Merrill. Bulletin #404. U.S. Dept. of Age. 1916) (Source)

A possible solution for smog: The incidence of smog is usually at its worst on major arterial roads. I am putting forth an idea, more for the purpose of people suggesting better solutions, rather than just starting a discussion.

We can have towers about 22 metres high, with a diameter twice that of a mobile transmitting tower, with inlet slots on top, located at a distance of 500 metres from each other. The bottom of the towers can have large fans which will suck in the air. A combination of electrostatic precipitators, filters, and a scrubbing tank, will be used to filter the particulate matter, and absorb the nitrates and other matter in the air, before it is released back.

All items are available, metal tower fabrication, fans, electrostatic precipitators, filters and scrubbing tanks. The tower is the only portion which will be visible above ground, the rest of the installation would be underground, so no obstruction for pedestrians or traffic. The particulate matter, (whatever it be), can be collected and be treated the same way as fly ash, to produce a product of value, whether it be an abrasive or a synthetic gemstone.

The whole pollution control process should be viewed as a huge business opportunity, or a series of opportunities, with profit not being the sole motive. People value before shareholder value.

Before ending this piece, a headline from The Hindu, dateline 25 December, 2015.

Green-Norms-Hindu25-12-2015The emphasis you will notice is on the possible economic loss, but not on presenting solutions, which will keep the industry viable and also pollution free. Possibly because no one has put in any thinking on the recoverable value of the “waste”, or developing pollution free processes.

This mindset will have to change if we are to have pollution free processes and systems.

This is a sentiment that I identify with very strongly.

“Drastic, revolutionary, disruptive answers to existing problems very rarely come from existing channels or are identified by those who are embedded in the particular sector experiencing the problem.” Chris, Capital Exploits