Environment

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Jennifer Reynolds/AP

Houston Will Turn Hurricane Ike Debris Into Charcoal

December 11, 2008 01:21 PM
by Isabel Cowles
The energy capital of America will create biomass charcoal by recycling 5.6 million cubic yards of tree waste left by Hurricane Ike, the winning idea from a citywide contest.

Rice Team Wins With “Biochar”

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A team of students and scientists at Rice University in Houston won the city’s national recycling contest, “Recycle Ike.

The goal of the competition was to find a creative, applicable and sustainable way to use the nearly 6 million cubic yards of tree waste felled during Hurricane Ike in September. More than 200 entries were reviewed by city officials.

The Rice University group submitted a plan to turn tree waste into carbon-sequestering “biomass charcoal,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

“This just goes to show how Houstonians have figured out in so many ways big and small how to make the best out of a natural disaster,” Mayor Bill White announced.

The seven-member team, comprised of professors as well as undergraduate and graduate students, will use the $10,000 in prize money to build a pilot bioreactor on campus.

The Houston Chronicle explains that the device will create biomass charcoal, also known as biochar, by heating shredded trees to 400–500 degrees Celsius with little oxygen. The resulting biochar can be used for soil enrichment and is especially effective as it traps carbon in the soil, preventing it from drifting into the atmosphere like it would if the felled trees decayed naturally.
Ultimately, the biochar could provide a financial boost to Houston. For example, the Chronicle reports, methane gas created in the burning process could be sold as potential energy. Furthermore, if President-elect Barack Obama chooses to instate a carbon cap-and-trade system, biochar could garner revenue credits for the city.

However, the carbon-sequestering apparatus is far from ready, and may not be functioning in time to use Ike’s actual waste. In the meantime, city officials have vowed not to send the wood to landfills, selling it for compost instead.

Background: Houston Cleans Up

This fall, Houston got creative about recycling. The city announced a national contest to recycle the 5.6 million cubic yards of tree waste felled during Hurricane Ike.

City officials planned to offer $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500 for the top three submissions. By the time the contest was announced, officials had already considered erosion control, boiler fuel and electric generation, but were looking for more large-scale solutions to deal with the sheer amount of waste.

According to city officials, there was enough tree debris to fill the Houston Astrodome four times over. Houston Mayor Bill Wright said, “We don’t want to have to fill up our precious landfill sites with a bunch of wooded waste, so we're going to try to recycle all of it. It will probably be the single biggest recycling project that there is in the country this year.”

City officials told the Houston Chronicle that they hoped the new ideas would help the city clear waste in the long-term, even after Ike debris is dealt with. “We want to come up with completely out-of-the-box concepts that can create new markets and scale up existing markets,” Cris Eugster, the mayor’s chief officer for sustainable growth, said. “And we want something that can be implemented sooner rather than later.”

Houston has made significant efforts towards sustainability in the last few years. Despite Houston’s notoriously polluted air, the city has taken great measures to go green, even before Ike’s arrival. In 2006, for example, the mayor proposed a recycling contest encouraging Houston neighborhoods to go green.

The “Go Green Houston Recycling Program” was created based on the goal of “Making Houston a Model Environmental City.” According to the City of Houston's official Web site, “Mayor Bill White announced the Go Green Competition to promote his environmental plan and vision to increase recycling initiatives in the areas of participation and tonnage for the neighborhoods that received curbside recycling services.” Four neighborhoods were announced winners and each received $5,000 to spend on neighborhood projects.

Houston has also made efforts to build sustainable energy sources. According to a study from the University of San Diego, of all major cities in the United States, Houston ranks second for energy-efficient construction.

The “Discovery Tower,” a 30-story building currently under construction, promises to be Houston’s “most environmentally advanced skyscraper,” reported Lee McGuire for Houston CBS station KHOU. Sporting wind turbines that will supply electrical power for the building, the $300 million tower will have recycled water, and energy-efficient glass and landscaping.

Reference: Recycling Web Guide

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