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NMSU researchers collaborating with Albuquerque on bio-energy project

A New Mexico State University research team is proposing an innovative method to minimize greenhouse gases and other pollutants produced by decomposition of solid wastes.

Zohrab Samani and Adrian Hanson, associate professors in NMSU's civil, agriculture, and geological engineering (CAGE) department, are collaborating with the city of Albuquerque to develop a cost-effective waste management technique that would produce energy and reduce the amount of pollutants entering the environment. The research is being funded by WERC, A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development, at NMSU.

Methane, a greenhouse gas produced by decomposing organic waste, pollutes air and water and is a major emission problem in the United States and internationally. Greenhouse gas emissions that may contribute to global warning have raised environmental issues throughout the world.

Waste from municipal, industrial and agricultural sources is a major contributor to air and ground water pollution. Because of possible water pollution, landfills are required to be monitored for long periods.

In January 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued Title V Clean Air Act provisions requiring the assessment of landfill gas emissions at several of Albuquerque's municipal landfills. Albuquerque officials have asked the researchers to look at new alternatives, specifically a bio-conversion process that can accelerate the decomposition of solid waste.

The proposed system will be based on previous research at NMSU using an existing pilot-scale bio-energy plant. The test site is located on the south edge of the NMSU campus and consists of a small-scale landfill with liquid collection drains at the bottom. The water is circulated through the landfill until organic wastes such as grass and wood chippings are dissolved and then passed through a special column. This column contains methane producing bacteria, which convert the waste into useful methane gas.

Samani explained that the traditional approach in converting organic waste into energy utilizes single-phase anaerobic digesters, which are time-consuming and costly. The new two-phase system converts the methane into energy within a short period of time.

"This process is more efficient than the traditional process of converting organic waste to compost, where much of the methane is not captured," Samani said.

Environmental engineering doctoral student Hui Wei J.Yu is conducting tests at the NMSU pilot site. Yu said the city of Albuquerque is providing a "recipe" so the researchers can produce a similar make-up of recyclable materials.

"There are three main advantages to this technology," Yu said. "We are saving land, producing energy and eliminating greenhouse gas."

The team will take the data and information from the NMSU site to evaluate the potential for a large-scale commercial application of the bio-energy system for Albuquerque. "We will conduct an economical analysis and look at the operational parameters to determine the feasibility of building a large-scale system," Samani said. The research could also have beneficial applications for other New Mexico areas and landfill operations.

The researchers are working in partnership with New Mexico Research Institute, New Mexico State University, the Albuquerque Waste Management Division and the New Mexico Environmental Department. For additional questions on this project, contact Samani at 646-2904.

For information on other WERC research activities, call 646-2038.

Alison Sawyer is a media specialist with WERC, A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development.

June 1, 2000