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Turning smelly, dangerous fumes into safe, clean energy

While large manufacturers are leading the way in converting noxious air into clean burning energy to run factories, the same technology is available – and affordable – for smaller businesses.

By Isaac Rudik


April 3, 2009
By Rob Colman

While much of industry is trying to position itself to the public as “green,” many efforts are not much more than PR fluff. For example, a global oil company advertises reducing its energy usage by about 25% since 1992. But on closer examination, the “improvement” averages only about 1.5% annually – roughly what it would achieve simply by replacing its enormous fleet of cars and trucks as leases expire coupled with turning off lights in its countless offices.

Hardly a green revolution for big oil.

But some firms are serious. S.C. Johnson & Co. built a new factory next to a garbage dump and is taking the methane gas produced by the refuse and converting into enough power to run the plant. Likewise, the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Oakville is installing its patented Fumes-to-Fuel™ system to convert emissions from its paint shop into electricity.

Although currently it is mostly large manufacturers that are leading the way in converting noxious air into clean burning energy, relatively few smaller business realise that the same technology is available – and affordable – for their operation. In fact, a well-thought out plan can reduce purchased energy by 20-25% for a typical business that is currently venting fumes or burning waste; in some cases, a business could remove itself entirely from the hydro grid over a few years.

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Fuelling Fuel Cells
Many industrial processes create dangerous fumes which, until now, had to be vented to the outside. But doing so requires costly ventilation systems, literally throwing energy out window while causing pollution.

Even though the public and news media focus always seems to be on manufacturers, probably because of their enormous use of energy in making products and the pollutants they spew into the air and water, the fact is that a wide range of businesses generate fumes that require venting or legally burn waste products can use the same technique to reduce energy consumption. Along with factories the list includes hospitals, schools and universities, food and beverage processing plants, and even so-called “mom and pop” businesses like Bed and Breakfast inns.

The secret lies in implementing a programme of installing fuel cells. These turn readily available fuels such as natural gas, noxious fumes that can be converted to gasses and anaerobic digester gas into the hydrogen gas required to power the fuel cell system. Fuel cells store the energy produced and then can run everything from large machines to desktop computers and lights. It is a highly efficient electrical power generation.

In fact, relatively inexpensive, easy to operate, fuel cell products are now available for smaller businesses. They feature ultra-low emissions, almost no operating noise and take up a relatively small amount of space – about 600 square feet. Such systems may be used for low cost on-site power generation, cogeneration and Combined Heat and Power (CHP), distributed energy grid support, and even leaving the grid entirely.

Penny Cheap Electricity
Long before concerns of climate change caused by air pollution was even a thought in the minds of scientists or politicians, electric companies advertised that “electricity is penny cheap” to encourage use.

It’s been decades since the slogan reflected reality but concerns prompted by environmental concerns has produced new, relatively inexpensive technology that enables a business to almost have “penny cheap” power.

Not only is finding ways to employ fuel cells good for the environment, it is smart business today. Savvy businesses are starting to use cells to generate energy from fumes and other waste because it saves energy costs while reducing the CO2 footprint, and cleans often hazardous fumes. It becomes a win-win for the company because as it saves money, it can protect workers and reduce its environmental footprint.

Isaac Rudik is a compliance consultant with Compliance Solutions Canada Inc. (www.compliancesolutionscanada.com). E-mail Isaac at irudik@csc-inc.ca.