Benson Lee has developed a kilowatt-size fuel cell that can run on gases emitted from decomposing animal droppings, human waste and food waste. The ramifications are fantastic… Lee figures, ”Two-thirds of the people on this planet have no electricity. That’s 4 billion people. They all have human waste. We assume they can dig a hole."
Not many people appreciate the beauty of a cesspool.
That’s a challenge that Benson Lee faces as he looks for investors to join an effort that’s turning poop into power.
Lee is chief executive of Technology Management Inc., an Ohio company that has spent more than 15 years developing a kilowatt-size fuel cell that can run on a variety of fuels.
And one of the fuels it feeds on comes from gases emitted from decomposing animal droppings, human waste and food-processing leftovers.
The ramifications of such technology may take your breath away.
”Two-thirds of the people on this planet have no electricity. That’s 4 billion people,” Lee said. ”They all have human waste. We assume they can dig a hole, create a cesspool, put a tarp on it, put in a tube and create electricity.”
In the short term, the more likely beneficiaries would be Ohio dairy farmers and the state’s 900 food-processing plants; they could cut energy and waste-disposal expenses and boost profits.
Some estimates indicate Ohio’s organic waste, aka ”biomass,” is capable of producing at least 65 percent of the state’s residential electricity needs.
To make it happen, TMI partnered with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, which in recent years has collected $1.5 million in state Third Frontier business-development grants and $1.74 million in federal funds to establish a pioneering biomass-to-energy facility on its Wooster Township campus.
Teams around the world are working to develop fuel cells for all sorts of purposes. Fuel cells are cleaner, quieter and far more efficient than the internal combustion engine and can run on something other than the world’s limited supply of fossil fuel.
But they are also ”disruptive technology,” a term for something so radical it could replace the dominant technology and change human behavior.
Changing Human Behavior
It is very hard to get potential investors and customers to sit still long enough to hear about thoroughly unfamiliar concepts.
”I call it missionary marketing. You have to convert the heathen to fill the temples and churches so you can preach to them,” Lee said.
TMI employs about 20 and has been working on fuel-cell technology since 1990.
It has tried to avoid duplicating the efforts of others, Lee said. Plenty of companies are trying to develop substitutes for batteries, and others have such grand goals as replacing entire central power facilities.
So TMI decided to go after the kilowatt class of fuel cell, and it set a few prerequisites.
The system had to be so easy to use that the buyer could maintain the equipment. It would have to come complete, so the entire thing could be delivered by common carrier and set up by someone with no special tools, equipment or training. And it would have to run on a variety of fuels, such as vegetable oil, jet fuel and diesel.
But only one fuel is guaranteed to exist just about anywhere in the world: the methane that is formed when organic matter breaks down.
Ohio seemed to have plenty of sources for that, including hundreds of food-processing plants and farm ”digesters,” tent-like facilities that collect and break down cow manure.
”That’s all feedstock for energy,” Lee said.
With that in mind, TMI turned to the OARDC in Wayne County and its staff of agricultural experts.
Success in Lab
In the lab and in preliminary field tests, the system works. It converts methane into a hydrogen-rich mixture of gas that powers a solid oxide fuel cell. The TMI fuel cell works in most environments and is unaffected by sulfur contaminants that are common in organic waste but bog down most fuel cells.
Before broad field testing can be conducted, however, the system will need the benefit of some routine engineering, such as fitting it with controls so it can self-regulate, and making sure the entire setup is durable and won’t break.
Finding the money to take the project forward is ”brutally hard,” Lee acknowledged.
”If I said I was going to replace batteries, people would understand that, and the mentality would be more open,” he said.