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Tuesday, 04 December 2007

How Green was the Green Man? - Page 5

Written by Matthew Alan Taylor
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Can 45,000 people journey vast distances to a lifeless desert and participate in an environmentally sustainable festival devoted to burning stuff? This year, Burning Man attempted to do just that: go green.

Can Garbage Save the World?

Gasification was the next entrant into Black Rock City’s green science fair. Jim Mason, owner of Berkeley’s The Shipyard art studio, showcased an art vehicle known as The Mechabolic, a “trash-to-fuel land speed racer slug.” The enormous creaky machine was overflowing with gadgetry, a green-tech geek’s wet dream.

Powering Mechabolic is a technology that’s as old as human societies: gasification. Gasification is a process by which organic material is smoldered in a low-oxygen, high-temperature environment. In the case of Mechabolic, the resultant hydrogen is used to directly power an unmodified internal combustion engine. What’s left at the end is a clump of carbon that can be plowed into the ground as a potent fertilizer. Tom Price says that pre-Columbian Indians used to cut down organic matter in the Amazon basin, gasify it into ash, and fertilize the soil.

Thus, with gasification, a vehicle can run on almost any organic material, such as walnut shells or coffee grounds. Price sees gasification as the world’s best hope to stop global warming and envisions a future when humans strip-mine landfills for fuel. Mason has made all of his gasification tinkering available to the world for free - open source - which befuddles the investment community.

According to Price, “In May, we took [San Francisco mayoral candidate] Chicken John’s gasified truck to the Clean Tech conference in San José - hundreds and hundreds of V.C.s and C.T.O.s and all their multi-million dollar projects. And we pull up out front and Chicken stands in the back in a jumpsuit that says ‘Café Racer Crew’ on it and he’s like, ‘We’re making open source, carbon-negative renewable energy running on garbage in your parking lot, and we did it with junk we found in our shop in two days. What have you guys got?’ And they went crazy, and they kept asking him, ‘What’s your business model, what’s your business model?’ He said, ‘It’s not a business model, it’s art.’ And they’re like, ‘What’s the point of the art?’ And he said, ‘What’s the point of politics? Politics is to divide people. What’s the point of art? Art is to bring people together. You and I, we’ve been brought together by this art. Congratulations, I win, thank you, next customer.’”

On the playa, Mechabolic offered burners the unique opportunity to shove waste into a tank and watch, see, and learn how this both powered the machine and produced a potent fertilizer.

Mason reflected on his experience with Mechabolic: “I demonstrated how to make a carbon negative flamethrower by combining a trash-to-fuel gasification system with charcoal based agriculture. Yes, it is odd, but there is a way to ‘burn things’ that is better for the total carbon cycle than to do nothing. Whether this is meaningful or not has nothing to do with the absolute carbon count of the project on the playa, of course.”

Patzek is as skeptical about the future of gasification as he is about algae. “If we are running a car on a little bit of biomass to do the absolute minimum amount of driving, I’m all for it. Otherwise, it’s another symptom of not understanding the scale involved.” Patzek believes that the U.S. and world must radically reduce energy consumption and move toward zero-waste communities that live in harmony with nature’s cycles. He says the truly green way for burners to get to the playa is not gasified cars, but cycling.


(Page 5 of 10)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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