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Beans might give you, and your car, gas

A Lehigh Valley, Pa., environmentalist is pushing ahead with plans to power vehicles not with gasoline or diesel but with the moldy bread, banana peels and rotten meats that would otherwise be dumped in area trash heaps.

Compressed gas
A manager walks across a vinyl tarp that traps methane gas to generate electricity at the Atwater facility in California. A microbiologist in Pennsylvania wants to build a pilot plant that would transform food waste into natural gas to power specially suited vehicles. (Anne Chadwick Williams/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

A Lehigh Valley, Pa., environmentalist is pushing ahead with plans to power vehicles not with gasoline or diesel but with the moldy bread, banana peels and rotten meats that would otherwise be dumped in area trash heaps.

Microbiologist Rex D'Agostino wants to build a pilot plant that would transform food waste into natural gas to power specially suited vehicles.

If he's successful, officials believe, the plant would be the first of its kind on the East Coast.

D'Agostino fears that "peak oil" -- the increasingly buzzed-about idea that global oil production inevitably will top out, then begin an irreversible decline -- will hit with frightening intensity in upcoming years, making last summer's $4-per-gallon gasoline look bargain-priced.

The resulting shortages and economic devastation would make the cars and trucks people now depend on virtually useless, he said.

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"In order to obviate a significant transportation calamity, we have to do something by weaning ourselves off petroleum-based gasoline," he said. "But nobody in this country is dedicated enough to see it happen.

"I want to make a dent in that problem. I want to help solve that problem."

D'Agostino talked to county administrators about setting a relatively small demonstration plant on unused county-owned land next to the wastewater treatment plant in Upper Macungie, Pa.

This summer, township supervisors unanimously approved the development.

He has other regulatory hurdles to cross and waits to hear whether the state will help fund the $1.5 million plant from a special fund earmarked for development of new energy programs.

Still, D'Agostino is confident enough in his proposal that he's already mapped out how he would expand his project into a series of food-to-fuel plants throughout the region.

"I've been working on this idea for two years now," he said. "It just seems logical to me."

Here's how his plan would work:

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He'd collect food waste from some of the area's largest institutions -- the hospital, say, or a college or university. The scraps would be kept in storage units at the plant while single-cell organisms called methanogens eat them. As the methanogens digest the food, they turn it into methane, carbon dioxide and a solid waste.

The waste could be recycled for composting, but the methane gas would be stored, compressed and used as fuel.

Compressed natural gas can't be used in regular cars. D'Agostino said he hopes federal programs to convert diesel-fueled vehicles to CNG ones would be available to help.

He plans to start by converting about 10 tons of food waste per day -- relatively small, he said, when you consider that would yield only the equivalent of a few hundred gallons of fuel each day.

D'Agostino said he needs to prove the process will work, though, to lure investors.

In the meantime, he's been talking to public officials who oversee fleets of diesel-fueled vehicles to gauge their interest.

Traci Confer of the Pennsylvania-based Energy Justice Network, which advocates for clean-energy projects, said the idea of digesting waste to generate fuel "is pretty well-established in Europe."

The fuel generated by such plants is cleaner than traditional gasoline or diesel, she said.

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The process still is very rare in the United States. Dave Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said he isn't aware of any plants in the country that convert food waste into CNG, although there are projects in California that use food waste to generate methane gas or that convert methane into CNG.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District in the San Francisco area has been generating gas from food waste for the past several years to help power a wastewater treatment plant.

"We had some excess capacity in our plant, and so we've been over the years looking at ways to utilize the capacity," spokesman Jeff Becerra said.

He said it's still unclear if using food to help power the plant will save money.

"We're trying to figure out if this is something we can do cost-effectively, long term," he said. "We don't know the answer to that."

D'Agostino said he's convinced his proposed plant could be cost-effective now and that it will provide far less expensive fuel if and when oil production plummets.

He also touted the fact his plant would take mountains of food scraps out of landfills and yield fuel that would produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's a win-win for everybody," he said, "except the landfill operator."

Compressed natural gas

What is it? Natural gas is a clear, odorless gas made primarily of methane. It commonly is used to heat homes or for cooking but can be compressed and used to power certain vehicles.

How much does it cost? Natural gas typically costs less than other fuels, although the vehicles that use it are typically more expensive than conventional vehicles. There are government incentives, however, to offset the higher cost.

Where is it available? It's still relatively rare. There are only about 800 stations in the United States.

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