In October, the United Nations estimated that the world's population crossed the 7-billion threshold. The announcement called attention to the threats facing the environment as a consequence of staggering population growth. Overpopulation, alongside a rising middle class in emerging nations, are threatening our reserves of natural resources and challenging our capacity to effectively manage waste.
The finite nature of oil especially has been worrisome considering how essential it is to nearly every facet of daily life in the developed world. The threat of its exhaustion has prompted innumerable attempts to generate electricity from alternative means. Several have succeeded, but one has been especially celebrated for its ability to not only create electricity but to manage trash volume simultaneously. The incineration of solid waste in order to generate electric power has been widely embraced for its unique facility to address two major global threats in a single process.
There is however; a drawback to this method. The byproduct of the process, called incinerator bottom ash is highly toxic and difficult to contain. Coal ash and IBA contain environmental toxins including heavy metals, arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead and mercury. Stockpiling and impounding the ash can lead to toxic leakages that enter into the nation’s water supply, much to the dismay of landfills who have begun refusing to house the ash now that the flaws in the containment methods have been revealed.
Roughly 85 percent of the landfills are leaking as a result of the internal heat created by the ash, but with 150 million tons of coal ash and IBA produced annually from the 600 coal burning and 86 waste-to-energy electric power plants across the USA, the question of where to store the ash now is pressing.
IBA Green Inc. (PIEX), may have a solution. The company has developed technology to convert coal ash and incinerator bottom ash into commercially viable and environmentally responsible construction products.
This plan simultaneously neutralizes the threat of IBA into the water supply, helps minimize landfill volume and reduces the use of other natural resources typically employed in the commercial products demanded by a growing population.
"There's an economic model here," says Angelo Scola, CEO of IBAgreen. "If you view the ash as more of a natural resource and can convert it to green, clean, construction products, we can then have a product base with a cheaper price points to manufacture construction materials."
Dangers of Landfill Waste and Toxic Water
As global consumption and waste byproducts continue to mount, the lack of viable storage options becomes increasingly visible. The most dire aspect is the fact that the toxic chemicals from these deteriorating landfills are permeating some of the largest water supplies in heavily populated areas in the country.
"Municipal landfills are now at the point of 30 to 40 years into their lifespan," Scola said. "Finding new areas for landfills are more difficult because of the, 'Not in my backyard' attitude. Most landfills, which are the waste of the waste and the dirtiest parts of our society, are placed next to some of our largest water sources. These landfills can be as big as 150 acres, so they act as giant swimming pools. When it rains or snows, it fills into the landfill and mixes with whatever's in the landfill."
Traditionally, the concept of locating landfills next to large bodies of water like lakes, rivers or reservoirs was to provide an outlet to discharge collected water after it was treated. Landfills have a plastic lining that prevents toxic water from mixing into the acquifer and water supply, but the recently discovered deterioration of these linings leaves millions of people susceptible to exposure to contamination.
"They have found that the risk of cancer is 20 times greater in any areas around the landfills or ash ponds because of the leakage of these chemicals into the acquifer," Scola said. "It's become more and more apparent that it's very much affecting the drinking water. The pressure is on the EPA and coal manufacturers to come up with a solution to recycle the ash and stop it from being impounded. The EPA, which at one point had thought impounding was the only thing to do, has also changed directions and [realized] they're better off finding a way to recycle the ash."
A Perfect Product?
The notion that the strain on landfills could be relieved by taking the toxic waste and using it as the chief resource to manufacture environmentally friendly, cost efficient products seems appealing but woefully idealistic. But that is precisely the goal of IBAgreen and the company’s proprietary method makes it possible.
The stabilization of the chemical structure of the ash is an enormous achievement in and of itself, considering the threat posed by the 1 billion tons of ash stockpiled across the US, but its success in restructuring it into construction supplies that surpass industry standards is even more remarkable.
The products produced by IBA, ranging from grout to concrete pipe are impermeable by water, among the primary causes for deterioration of our nations bridges, roads and buildings. Having a longer lifespan would cut back on repairs and minimize the spending after initial installation, increasing consumer appeal. Longer life span of products and greater efficiency are of chief importance during this time and contribute to IBA’s timeliness and appeal.
"Our technology is safe," Scola said. "We have the ability and test results to back it that show we can encapsulate the metals. We have two product lines, one through encapsulation and the other through nanotechnology where we neutralize the heavy metals through chemistry. We change the molecular structure through chemistry."
As an example, one of the products that the company has is a polymer concrete, which has much more density and harder surface than regular Portland cement. Scola says that cement is the second most consumed product in the world after water, and yet it also has the highest CO2 emissions of all materials. In addition, polymer concrete is much more durable and a lot less porous, equating to a longer lifespan than typical concrete.
"By using polymer concrete, you've reduced the CO2 emission by 80 percent," he said. "Polymer cement is 20 percent of the footprint of manufactured Portland cement. By utilizing our material rather than using virgin materials, you now stopped the strip mining of sand and gravel because we're using existing materials."
As for demand, the Department of Transportation estimates that there are 600,000 bridges in the U.S., and at least 25 percent currently are considered unsafe and in desperate need of repair. So Scola estimates that just from infrastructure spending on roads, bridges, power grids, etc. will create a market upwards of $100 billion annually.
"We create substantial savings and added-value from a both financial sense as well as a social and environmental perspective," he said. "The ash dumps and ash that is manufactured on a daily basis are usually located in urban centers where the growth is, that's where they need the electricity, that's where the coal is burnt, that's where the infrastructure repairs need to be. The resources to manufacture the products are right at ground zero of where the bulk of the work needs to be done."
All this translates to reduced petroleum consumption, jobs to the inner city, manufacturing construction products that meet all specifications, and the ability to hold prices much longer.
The Future for IBAgreen
The company, in addition to successfully minimizing the carbon footprint, has also created a unique business strategy that allows it to generate growth from multiple directions. IBA Green would earn revenue both for neutralizing the threat of the ash and taking responsibility for it, and then again on the other end from the sale of its commercial products.
By virtue of the abundance of source materials and the pressure to minimize waste and reduce the carbon footprint, IBA seems well positioned to sustain growth.
"Reduction of any of the leaching of the toxins into the acquifers is our No. 1 priority," Scola said. "Recycling, taking the toxin out of the environment and turning it into a green product is the other. Very routinely, the landfill area in many areas from Hawaii to New York, finding a space for landfill is next to impossible. So if we can reduce how much material is going into the landfills, it extends the life of the existing ones and there's a push across the world for recycling zero waste, zero landfill, so we reduce the need for landfills."
The company is already in the process of responding and negotiating requests for proposals from several markets around the world. As IBAgreen finds more opportunities to exhibit the value of its technology and business model, the company's progress deserves attention for trying to establish an economically, environmentally and socially viable solution to one of the world's largest and most pressing dilemmas.