Wheeling man promotes technology to turn landfill gases into energy
(Editor’s note: No, Green Jews are not Jews from Mars. But they are Jews who, through their work, lifestyles or advocacy, contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment. The Chronicle begins a recurring series profiling Green Jews living in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.)
WHEELING, W.Va. — Before answering questions at his home, Melvin Finstein pointed to a trash can in his kitchen.
To put it as simply as possible, the job of this 78-year-old professor emeritus from Rutgers University is to divert as much solid waste as he can from ending up there.
Finstein is the president and CEO of American Anaerobic Digestion, Inc. (AAD) — a company that provides “cost-effective, publicly acceptable facilities to recover both materials and energy,” according to its Web site.
In other words, it promotes construction of facilities that separate out recyclable metals, paper and glass before it enters the landfill while turning easily biodegradable material into methane and using it for energy.
It’s the last part of that equation that’s so significant. Organic material in landfills already breaks down into methane — a potent greenhouse gas — and is released into the atmosphere. The system AAD promotes would capture the methane and channel it for energy instead.
Finstein, who lectured at Rutgers on pollution microbiology and solid waste research and treatment, is the first to say this is “esoteric” material.
“None of this stuff is simple,” said Finstein, who lives in Wheeling and is a member of Temple Shalom. “We’ve just scratched the surface.”
But the technology exists, and it works, he said. The more widely employed it is, the less garbage that winds up in the landfill.
AAD promotes a method of separating recyclables and trapping methane known as the Induced Blanket Reactor method. IBR, as it’s also known, breaks down organic matter and produces methane gas, without the use of oxygen. Electricity can be made from the product.
An IBR system consists of above ground tanks with associated pumps, valves, piping, gas collection system and controls, sometimes placed in a well-insulated building.
“We can provide feasibility plans, preliminary
designs, waste reuse surveys, waste assessment analyses, permitting services, complete process designs, equipment, project management, construction coordination, startup, commissioning and staff training to take projects from green field through operation,” Finstein said.
The potential for such a process is great. In the United States alone, the average American generates 5 pounds per person per day of municipal solid waste, Finstein said. Of that, two-thirds is organic material.
“That’s a lot of paper, pizza boxes and food waste,” he said.
Despite its potential, IBR, and other existing processes for trapping and converting methane to energy face a major hurdle — cost.
Tipping fees at American landfills are cheap, he said, meaning it still makes more economic sense to back a garbage truck up to a landfill rather than build the apparatus to produce methane energy.
“Even though you produce energy and pull out recyclables (with IBR),” he said, “You can’t do it for $27 a ton.
So Finstein is busy promoting the technology. He lectures on the subject, and he has begun writing a book.
“The interest is simply going through the roof,” he said, “and few people understand the fundamentals — very few — so I think it’s time to write a book.”
He does think the future for methane-generated energy is bright. “It has to be,” he said. “I may not live to see it, but it has to go this way.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)