Not long after our now-defunct publication, Remediation Management, blew the whistle on the fuel additive MTBE’s nasty characteristics, I penned the following as part of my Editor’s Comments:
Looking for Opportunities
Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is a colorless, flammable liquid with high water solubility (>4%), high flammability, and extreme volatility. It is resistant to biodegradability in either aerobic or anaerobic conditions, does not adsorb to vadose zone materials, moves quickly through soil columns because of its high vapor pressure, and readily partitions into groundwater. Not surprisingly, groundwater in equilibrium with gasoline containing 15% MTBE could contain as much as 9,600 ppm of substance.
MTBE has been used as a deicer in cold climates in the US since 1979 and used as a fuel additive since 1990 primarily in the winter months, and in California for the entire year since 1994. As early as February 1991, the California EPA office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment established an interim action level of 35 ppb for MTBE. In other states, regulatory action levels range from 20 to 200 ppb. Suddenly aware of groundwater risks, governing and regulating agencies around the country are beginning to take action to ban the use of MTBE-laced fuels, in effect resetting the mobile-source air quality emissions clock back by a decade or two.
That’s awful, you say, but what’s that have to do with me and MSW? Well, maybe it’s time to take a look at synfuels.
There are a number of waste-to-synfuel technologies that are well past the maybe stage. Not only are they proven, but actually entering into the commercialization phase as we speak. While it’s easy to understand the reluctance to engage in pioneering efforts—particularly with the public’s pocketbook—maybe it’s time we pushed actively into an area in which we know there will be a market for as far as we can imagine. The risk lies in finding ways to become cost competitive.
Permitting the energy content of waste to go for naught is not only economically wasteful, it is an environmental affront. The increasing cost of petroleum extraction along with the ever-present specter of its embargo, make fuel and energy generation from waste attractive options. Now with the almost certain restriction on the use of MTBE as a component of automotive fuel we may be facing just the kind of opportunity that’s needed to jump-start the introduction of a new product for waste managers to market.
Welcome to 2011
While MTBE has indeed been canned as a fuel additive, we pretty much missed the boat on providing its replacement, allowing the USDA-subsidized corn-belt juggernaut to lead the way. But the tide seems to be turning with organic wastes-to-fuel projects popping up in various places around the nation, some of which are backed by USDA loan guarantees…a very generous gesture to be certain.
As I said in another Editor’s Comments earlier in this century, regarding what became a stillborn project in California:
I don’t know whether ethanol is the best product that can be achieved, but that’s for others to decide and the marketplace to confirm or deny. What I believe is that traditional economic concerns are knocked cockeyed in a situation where the public is willing to pay good money in the form of tip fees to get rid of the feedstocks for the operation. This seems a lot like having a refinery in the middle of an oilfield...only here, people are paying you to operate it and then pay for the fuel you produce.
What is it we don’t seem to like about that kind of arrangement?