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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Sustainability – A little detour from Composites

I’m going to go into sustainability this week, but I’m taking a little detour from composites.  I’ll get back to why I’m doing this and also talk a little about how it is a great model for how to make composites sustainable.  It is all about the plants, how we grow them and use them, and what we need to do to sustain not only our composite material precursors, but life itself on this planet.  And don’t worry, I’ll bring this back around to composites sustainability, but first I want to show you an amazing closed loop system.


A little background here, my wife has a nutrition certificate from Stanford, so she is part of the new food revolution that focuses on whole plant foods sustainably grown (read as organic by and large).  She ran across a video which we watched titled “The Need to Grow”.  This film is about a gentleman by the name of Michael Smith, a physicist by training, but really a computer engineer.  He wrote the physics engines for several of the popular first person shooter video games on the market today.  But, all along, he had this idea about how to accelerate some natural processes in order to create a fully sustainable system for turning forest products waste into a soil amendment to build back the soils that our industrial agriculture has killed.  It has been estimated that we have at most 60 years of farmable soil left on the planet, and when we run out because we are killing off so much of it with industrial agriculture – it is game over for humanity. 

The pair of pictures above is of the “Green Power House”.  This Michael Smith invention is a fully circular closed loop sustainable model for turning lumber products waste into energy, bio-oil, and a soil amendment that has everything that our current food crops need besides water and sunshine to produce food.  His first structure was built near Columbia Falls, Montana right next to the F. H. Stoltze Land and Lumber company.  Basically, the Green Power House uses the waste wood material from the lumber mill and converts it in a completely closed loop system into a very rich soil amendment and electricity.  This one structure produces enough electricity to power 10 homes while also converting 6 tons of wood waste into 2 tons of soil amendment and a bio-oil product that can be burned in a diesel engine. 


The idea behind this is fairly simple once you understand it.  The wood waste from the sawmill goes into what he calls an “Organic Carbon Engine” which is basically a large pyrolyzing system that raises the temperature of the wood waste to the point that everything that isn’t carbon is driven off.  What is left is a very open structure of what is called “bio-char”.  I’ve taken a look at the chemical structure of this stuff, and it is primarily an open structure of hexagonal benzene rings bonded together loosely in a random structure with lots of open space inside it.  Hopefully those that have been reading my posts understand that the aromatic structure (6-carbon benzene ring) is the form of carbon that is preferred by nature.  It is also the backbone of cellulose, lignin, carbon fiber, and nearly all composite resins. 

The gases that evolve from the Organic Carbon Engine pyrolysis chamber are lower molecular weight hydrocarbons including methane and a bio-oil that has viscosity and other properties similar to diesel fuel.  There is also quite a bit of CO2 that is evolved from this process.  The methane and bio-oil produced are stripped off and used to power the pyrolysis chamber, and the CO2 that is evolved is captured and introduced into a carefully controlled algae tank that is constantly being controlled for the maximum growth rate of an algae that is native to the area of Montana where Michael Smith set up his first Green Power House.  With the right amount of CO2 bubbled into the algae tank, and the sunlight that is captured in the glass walled greenhouse-like algae tank, the system can produce tons of algae sludge a day.  This algae sludge is fed into an anaerobic digester (schematically portrayed by the buffalo above – not really buffalos) that is also controlled for optimum output of a material that is mixed with the biochar and creates the soil amendment. 

Anaerobic digestion of the algae  produces methane which is fed back into the Organic Carbon Engine to pyrolyze more wood waste, and the cycle continues.  The excess methane and bio-oil that comes from this entire cycle is used to generate electricity using generators powered both by methane and by the bio-oil.  And the CO2 from burning these fuels to produce electricity is also captured and fed to the algae to produce more soil amendment.  So, all of the waste products that are produced by the process are re-used in the process.  The input is forest products waste and the outputs are both soil amendments to return our used up soils to a healthy state to grow food for our growing population, and electricity to power our homes.  This is what a person with a solid grasp of physics and chemistry, a complete understanding of control systems, and an abiding curiosity and passion to do something meaningful gets us.  A gentleman like Michael Smith and his Green Power House.

What does all of this have to do with sustainability of composites?  I told you I would get back to this.  As it turns out, it has quite a bit to do with composites – especially as we move to a plant-based sustainable model for the composite materials industry.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, we are destroying the most important piece of the cycle of life that all of us rely on to exist on this planet – the soil that we use to grow all of our food.  Industrial agriculture with its mono-crop model and chemistry to kill off weeds and pests is actually killing the very thing that is required to allow the plants that feed us to live – the soil itself.  These are the same plants that we will rely on in the future to not only feed us but also to produce our fibers and resins for the raw materials to make most of the things that human beings have come to rely on in their daily lives.

Flax is a good example.  The fibers in the flax plant are a very good starting point for a composite fiber.  And the seeds of the flax plant are used not only for their oils but also to grind up and put on your oatmeal to give you the Omega-3 fatty acids that you brain needs to stay healthy.  Or, if you live in the tropics, coconuts.  The meat and milk of the coconut are used in food products for a range of different things, as well as to feed people in the region where they grow.  And the fiber from the husk – coconut coir – is a very good precursor for both a natural fiber as well as to process into a material for making low cost carbon fiber. 

Trees are another very good example of this.  I’ve talked about the use of both cellulose and lignin as well as some of the pitch from pine, fir, and spruce trees for use as precursor materials for composites.  Without the soil to grow these trees, there will be no more trees to use to build our houses or to process into other structural materials.  And with the richness of the soil amendment from the Green Power House concept, we will be able to harvest the trees we plant sooner because they will grow faster and produce the wood that we need to build our homes.

This will truly Close the Circle and is key to a sustainable future on this planet. 

That’s about enough for this week.  I hope everyone that reads these posts enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them.  As usual I will post this first on my website – www.nedpatton.com – as well as on LinkedIn.  And if anyone wants to provide comments to this, I welcome them with open arms.  Comments, criticisms, etc. are all quite welcome.  I really do want to engage in a conversation with all of you about composites because we can learn so much from each other as long as we share our own perspectives. 

I also wanted to add again this week that I will be speaking at the SAMPE conference in Long Beach in May.  I’m going to be talking about the subject that I obviously have a passion for – composites sustainability.  Maybe I can help shake up the industry a bit again, like what happened at the Carbon Fiber Conference in Salt Lake.  One can only hope.  Anyway, for anyone that is interested in materials and process engineering, SAMPE will be a great conference.  And they will have a really great exhibit as well.  And if you do go, please look me up.  I’d love to strike up a conversation with anyone that’s interested.

And, finally, I still need to plug my book, so here’s the plug.  The book pretty much covers the watershed in composites, starting with a brief history of composites, then introducing the Periodic Table and why Carbon is such an important and interesting element.  The book was published and made available last August, and is available both on Amazon and from McFarland Books – my publisher, as well as other on-line bookstores.  However, the best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  https://www.nedpatton.com/product-page/the-string-and-glue-of-our-world-signed-copy.  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in. 



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