Technology Breakthrough Offers Hope for Jamaica’s Ethanol Project

Reading an item in The Daily Gleaner recently about the Jamaican Government’s proposed waste-to-energy facility, I felt a familiar sadness. Before the proposal was even unveiled, naysayers were at work. It seems the same old spirit of “Choh! No waste me time” is alive and well in Jamaica.

The article brought back memories of the defeatist attitude that made saboteurs poke holes in the plastic sheets lining the bottoms of experimental fishponds, and some small farmers plant coffee suckers upside down when the government distributed them free of cost.

How often as a child I heard why nothing good would come out of the tiny island of Jamaica. How clever some people are at finding reasons for failure! And how misled they often are!

I refer the doubters to Usain (“Lightning”) Bolt and the other Jamaican track stars who amazed the world in Beijing last month. As Barack Obama keeps saying, “Yes we can!” And yes we did!

We must hold on to that thought, not dig in the dust for reasons to fail. So let’s take a more optimistic look at that garbage-to-energy plan.

The Government had announced in April that it was inviting proposals to set up a US$500 million (J$3.6 billion) facility to generate ethanol from garbage. And, as I was reading the item, the Office of Utility Regulations was still sifting through proposals from bidders. A contract will not be awarded before year’s end. But without even seeing the proposals, some environmentalists were telling The Gleaner why the process might not work.

And Dr. Nilza Justiz-Smith, lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Technology in St Andrew, was also throwing cold water on the idea. One problem, she said, might be producing enough garbage to feed the processing plant. I had to smile. If my memory can be trusted, Jamaicans have never had a problem producing garbage. The government’s consultant, Dr Raymond Wright, already had looked into that issue and was satisfied there would be more than enough garbage to keep the plant busy.

Critics complained that the plant would depend on incineration and the disposal of ash would present a problem. But Dr. Wright pointed out that there is “a suite of technologies” from which the government could choose and not all require incinerating the waste.

Checking the Web, I found support for Dr. Wright’s optimism. An article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Technology Review” describes a new system for converting trash into ethanol and methanol. According to the Review, the new process “doesn’t incinerate refuse, so it doesn’t produce the pollutants that have historically plagued efforts to convert waste into energy.”

The technology “vaporizes organic materials to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a mixture called synthesis gas, or syngas, that can be used to synthesize a wide variety of fuels and chemicals.”

According to the article, in addition to processing municipal waste, the technology can “create ethanol out of agricultural biomass waste, providing a potentially less expensive way to make ethanol than current corn-based plants.”

Inorganic materials, including toxic substances, are oxidized and incorporated into a pool of molten glass, which hardens into a material that can be used for building roads.

And according to experts quoted in the article, the system makes it possible to produce fuels from waste at “competitive costs.”

The article concluded by stating that this process did not have the market to itself. “Multiple new approaches for transforming waste into biofuels are being explored,” the article stated. “And the winner is not yet clear.”

But one thing is clear – to me at any rate. A new day is dawning in environmental science, and technologies yet undreamed of are emerging to solve the problems that now seem so daunting. Already, the new technologies are offering solutions that we never dreamed of a generation ago. 

About the Author:
George Graham is a Jamaican-born journalist and author who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His new book, “The Color of Ice: A Canadian Serenade,” is available at www.publishamerica.com/shopping/index.htm. His earlier books are at http://stores.lulu.com/georgeg.

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