Friday, January 23, 2009

Pollution is resource in the wrong place

Going into the future, I think we'll have to be very inventive about our usage of natural resources. Fewer rich sources of energy and resources will be out there, so we'll have to find inventive ways of using what we have and extracting what we need from lesser grades of material.

Also, it will get harder and harder to clean up big environmental messes.

Recently, I heard this axiom:
"Pollution is resource in the wrong place"

I have no idea who said that, but it's very wise. So wise in fact, that I have a feeling this might be the next big thing.

Here's a few way I see it put into practice.

Butte, MT Open Pit Mine. An abandoned copper mine builds up water contaminated with all sorts of nasty chemicals and metals. It became one of the largest (by size) Superfund sites in the US. Right now, though, the mine has reopened using new methods to leach metals out of the water and clean it up (also making a profit off the extracted metals). Extremophile bacteria also helped clean up "The Pit." Researchers studying these bacteria have invented new cancer drugs from them.

Another example of beneficial use of "waste" resources is beneficial use of dredge material for coastal restoration in Southeast Louisiana. Rebuild the wetlands while maintaining the port.

Fly Ash has been in the news because of the spill. Fly ash is what's leftover when you burn coal for oil. The TVA spill happened because it was being stored in big ponds that just got bigger and bigger and bigger. Well, fly ash does have an actual use. It's been used as a cement substitute in concrete mixes. It was first used as such in the Hoover Dam. The manufacture of cement is extraordinarily energy intensive and has a HUGE carbon footprint.

Also related to fly ash is the huge amounts of entrained thorium that could be used in thorium-fuel nuclear reactors. A very interesting and very promising emerging technology. The science behind thorium power is very interesting, there have been multiple successful test reactors, and I plan on doing a post about it soon.

Here's to "waste not, want not" for future energy and resource sources.


Anonymous said...

YES! Excellent post and insight. I remember when I was a kid, seeing my family throwing out metal and electronics, and thinking "gee, maybe they'll be mining the landfills for copper someday!"... and how about those enormous nuclear "waste" piles sitting around the country - hundreds if not thousands of tons of spent fuel - which are going to be uselessly buried in casks in the desert or worse, dropped into the Marianas Trench?

THEY'RE FUEL! The reactors we have today are incredibly inefficient; they only burn 1/200 or less of the available energy in the fuel - fast breeder / fission reactors, including those fueled by non-proliferative, non-dangerous, non-meltdown-prone thorium, will be able to produce energy from that 'waste' we're currently throwing away.

There are environmental extremists who are against nuclear power in any form out of ideological commitment - they don't understand this, or don't want to. They mean well, but they don't understand what they're talking about.

According to sources like NuclearGreen, Wikipedia (}, and the Encyclopedia of Earth (, the proposed Generation IV reactors, like the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, will be able to fuel us for centuries!

IF, that is, we stay within our current rate of consumption - highly unlikely, though. No resource is unlimited against exponential increase in usage!

Still, since our choices seem to be:
A) stop using energy, or use 1/10th as much, and go back to 19th-century living (only an option if you're a survivalist or some other person who knows how to live like that and enjoys it)
B) keep burning all the fossil fuels we can till they run out and the atmosphere is full of CO2, Antarctica melts and we live in a tropical 'paradise' in Canada,
C) hope solar and wind power will power us - probably leading to something close to A) above. I don't mind using less power, I bike everywhere, and I'd be OK with less technology, but most people won't like the limited and weather-dependent nature of renewable natural power. Of course, there's always geothermal...

ANyway - Thorium and fast neutron reactors are the future of nuclear fission power. Maybe in 20-30 years fusion plants will be up and running, and AIs will be controlling the world, but in the world of today, fission is the most environmentally friendly alternative to hydrocarbon base-load power plants.

Clay said...

One point: the primary reason the US doesn't chemically reprocess fuel into new rods is because they'd contain more plutonium.

Plutonium can be burned in conventional reactors, but it's much easier to make a nuke out of plutonium than even enriched uranium.

We don't reprocess fuel to limit the amount of plutonium in circulation that could be used in a bomb. Proliferation, not environmentalism.

Anonymous said...

Here's another one for you:

"Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value." - R. Buckminster Fuller

Tim said...

I've experimented with fly ash concrete mixtures and found it results in stronger concrete. Another industrial by-product that is making its way into concrete: ground granulated blast furnace (GGBF) slag. GGBF slag increases the durability of concrete.

Still waiting on the long-term effect of putting a human body into concrete--the so-called Hoffa-crete mix.



Clay said...

Stronger concrete? I've heard that the fly ash increases the drying time, which, given how contractors tend to put almost full loads on fresh concrete almost immediately, is a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

nice article upon pollution issue..... i had found more information about basic of pollution issue but this is not sufficient. If you know more please explain.