Recovering and Recycling Cuyahoga River Sediments: An Alternative to Disposal

river sediment

The activities in a lake such as Lake Erie are controlled in part by what happens in the watershed. Losses from the land are gained by the lake, for better or for worse–often to the detriment of organisms living in the lake. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus that contain compounds from agricultural and residential fertilizers, along with toxic materials such as industrial wastes (e.g., polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) and human hygienic products (e.g., endocrine disrupting estrogen agonists and antagonists) enter lakes largely through riverine inputs, often exacerbated by rainstorms and snowmelt runoff. Also, ecosystem managers need to consider particulate materials, which consist largely of soil particles (i.e., sand, silts, and clays) carried along with flowing water and which may turn into sediment at the bottom of a lake when the flow decreases at the mouth of a river or after entry to a lake.

Although point sources such as pipes from a sewage treatment plant or local industry can be feeders of pollutants to a river, much of point-source pollution is now regulated to prevent large inputs to receiving waters. The major source of pollutants now is from nonpoint sources such as runoff from residential yards and agricultural fields. When runoff occurs from these nonpoint sources, generally it comes as a mix of dissolved and particulate materials. Although most nutrients and many toxic materials are soluble in water, they often are attached to the surface of sediments when they enter a stream or river, complicating the management picture.

Which sediments are worst for holding unwanted materials? Recall from geometry that as the radius of a sphere gets smaller, the ratio of surface area to volume gets larger. So the surfaces of smaller particles (e.g., clays) are proportionately much more coated with nutrient and toxic materials than the larger sand particles. This means that sediments of different sizes can be and need to be managed differently.
river sediment 2
Until recently, eroded sediments were treated as a nuisance, filling up harbors at the mouth of rivers and requiring dredging to keep those ports open for commerce. The Cuyahoga River fills its navigation channel with eight to ten feet of sediment each year, requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge it to maintain shipping access up six miles to the ArcelorMittal steel company. To be exact, the corp dredges 225,000 cubic yards of sediment at great expense to public funds, whether state or federal.

Recent advances in technology have begun to turn bane into bonanza. The Port of Cleveland in partnership with Kurtz Bros., Inc. has been harvesting sand five miles upstream of ArcelorMittal using a sand interceptor that collects sand from the river and deposits it along the riverbank, where it is delivered to trucks and sold for construction, soil conditioning, and stream and beach reconstruction. It is then dried and sorted by size. Because it is collected above most industrial activities, it is sufficiently clean for reuse. It is estimated that with expansion of its capabilities, the sand interceptor may be able to reduce sediment loads to the port by 20%. The interceptor was funded with $1.2 million by the Ohio Healthy Lake Erie Fund. Independent research conducted at the University of Akron and verified by the Ohio EPA found that the material met state and federal standards for cleanliness.

But what about the sediments that are not collected by the sand interceptor? Aren’t those the materials most likely to have hazardous materials adhering to them? Sediments dredged from the mouth of the Cuyahoga River are now placed in a confined disposal facility (CDF) at the eastern end of Burke Lakefront Airport. This is a special experimental CDF that is administered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Office of Coastal Management. It is constructed as a series of pools through which sediment slurries pass. The sediment material gradually sinks to the bottom, leaving the water to pass back into the shipping channel in a process called dewatering the sediment. Over time, the sediment consolidates, with the larger, heavier materials settling in the first pond and lighter sediments settling in later pools. Bacterial and fungal activities gradually will decompose the toxic materials (e.g., PCBs and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs). In the meantime, small amounts of these dewatered sediments can be combined with other materials and used in soil mixes. The Ohio EPA tests the mixes to ensure that they meet state and federal standards for safety. Once again, these soil mixes are made through the public-private partnership between the state and Kurtz Bros.

Through these innovative measures, sediment no longer need to be considered something to be disposed of; instead, sediment can be considered to be a valuable resource that can be recycled and marketed. It is something to think about and to carefully consider as the next wave of environmental protection: making the environment safe by making it profitable. Time will tell whether this is a valuable direction, especially given the current political aversion to making sweeping environmental regulations.

–Bob Heath

Green Energy Still on the Rise

Innovation and green energy that save companies money may be the best way to curb greenhouse gases—good old pragmatism. Many investors are no longer willing to bet on the long-term risks of relying on coal, oil or gas. Renewables such as wind and solar have become increasingly cost-effective energy sources.

In Time (December 12, 2014), Richard Branson of Virgin Group says “we need to aggressively deploy a lot more renewables—wind, solar, geothermal—in the power sector, in heavy industries like mining, in the built environment and transport,” as well as increase energy efficiency. Countries need to learn from each other, coordinate efforts and help developing countries get more access to renewables. China and India are doubling their commitment to clean energy. And no matter who is in the White House, America is competitive and wants to be on the winning side.

Recent examples of innovation and pragmatism include the following:
  • In 2015, for the first time, more renewable capacity was created worldwide than conventional fossil-fuel generation. And the International Energy Agency expects that renewable energy will grow by 42% globally by 2021. (Time, December 12, 2016)
  • Kohl’s envelopes advertise: “Kohl’s is LEED-ing the way with more than 40 million square feet of LEED certified space.”
  • As the world’s largest retailer, Walmart is seeking to reduce emissions in its operations by 18% by 2025 and will work toward adding zero waste to landfills in key markets such as Canada and the United States. The company also plans to be powered by 50% clean and renewable energy sources. (Akron Beacon Journal, November 15, 2016)
  • Tesla and Solarcity have developed solar roof panels that don’t stick out. The roof panels harness the sun’s power but do not look like traditional solar panels. They will be available this year, but pricing has not yet been announced. (Time, December 5, 2016)
  • Google expects that in 2017 it will have amassed sufficient renewable energy to meet all of its electricity needs throughout the world—and its energy needs are immense given all the offices and data centers that the company runs. The company, however, won’t be able to power operations solely on wind and solar because of regulations and complicated power grids. “But it may be able to offset every MW hour of electricity supplied by a power plant running on fossil fuels with renewable energy.” (Akron Beacon Journal, December 7, 2016)
  • The Breakthrough Energy Coalition has announced a $1 billion investment fund to support new energy ventures. Members of this group include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberk, George Soros, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and Richard Branson. They have jumped into the alternative energy race. (Akron Beacon Journal, December 12, 2016)
Finally, Michael Bloomberg says in Time (December 28, 2016) that in climate change, as in many other areas, where Washington fails to drive progress, cities will act. Washington sees climate change as partisan, but mayors
of both small towns and big cities, see it as a reason to clean the air, save money on energy, build modern infrastructure, protect themselves from extreme weather and attract new businesses…. I am confident that no matter how the EPA is run, and no matter what laws the next Congress passes, we will meet the pledges that the U.S. made as part of the international agreement signed in Paris… cities and businesses and citizens will continue to reduce emissions… They recognize that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can make their communities healthier places to lie and work…. Over the past decade, Congress has not passed a single bill that takes direct aim at climate change. Yet at the same time, the U.S. has led the world in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions…. To find out where the country is heading, don’t follow the national headlines. Get involved locally. That’s where the action is.
—Lorraine McCarty

Fuel Cell Technology Developing at KSU

In October 2016, Dr. Yanhai Du, assistant professor and researcher in fuel cells at Kent State University’s College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology, came to our breakfast meeting to talk about fuel cells. Several people from KEC also toured his lab in December.  Dr. Du is a leading researcher in clean energy and holds several patents in the fuel cell area, including one for a compact spiral ceramic fuel cell produced by 3D printer.

Dr. Du talked about the role of the fuel cell in our energy mix. In the United States, 66.1% of our energy is produced from fossil fuels such as dr-du
coal and natural gas. Nuclear makes up 19.4%.  Renewables are less than 13.2% now, but are increasing. Even with the political situation, Dr. Du feels the use and growth of renewables is now unstoppable.

So what is a fuel cell?  Think of it as a “magic box.”

fuel-cellIt is an electrochemical process that doesn’t burn the fuel. You do have to make hydrogen which consumes energy – actually more energy than a fuel cell produces.  But if you generate the hydrogen with renewables (such as solar), you can use the power of the fuel cell without needing to depend on the sun.

Solar, wind, hydropower and nuclear power can all be used to produce the energy needed to power a fuel cell.  There are several different types of fuel cells, and the ‘magic box’ is a complex place, but a fuel cell can last 10 -20 years and is more efficient than current electricity production methods.  A fuel cell can be very small or very large, composed of a stack of fuel cells—currently up to 56 mega watts (MW), which can drive a car, train, plane, etc.

For those of you who are technically minded:  A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that directly converts (through a chemical reaction between a fuel and an oxidant) chemical energy in the fuel to electricity (with water and heat as its byproduct, without burning the fuel).

Advantages of fuel cells include:

  • Low to zero emissions
  • High efficiency
  • Reliability
  • Fuel Flexibility
  • Energy Security
  • Ruggedness
  • Durability
  • Sustainability
  • Quiet Operation
  • Technology Capability
  • Light weight
  • Long Lasting

These advantages are causing a wide variety of commercial usage, including the following:

  • The top ten fuel cell power customers are AT&T, Walmart, Ebay, Apple, Coke, Cox, CBS, Sheraton and Adobe. Their use ranges from 17.1 MW to 1.6 MW.
  • The top fuel cell forklift customers are SYSCO, Walmart, P&G, Central Grocers, BMW, WinCo Foods, Kroger, Lowes, Wagmans, and Coke. Their use ranges from over 700 forklifts to 96 forklifts each.
  • Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA) in Canton, OH has received a grant covering most of the purchase price of 5 fuel cell buses.  While they are more expensive initially, they provide twice the mileage as diesel buses and have zero carbon emissions.   Canton will be third in the country in fuel cell bus usage.  Ohio itself is one of the top five fuel cell states.
  • There are fuel-cell cars coming out now but they are very expensive at about $58,000. By 2025, the goal is 1.5 million cars with zero emissions.
  • Cargo trucks can also run on fuel cells. Fuel cell cargo trucks run 400 miles on one fill of hydrogen.  The size of a fuel cell depends on how much hydrogen you want to use.  You use a pressure gauge to tell how much is in tank.  Hydrogen is safer than gasoline—gasoline can burn a car, but if hydrogen leaked, it would just flow into the air.
  • Coradia LINT is a new CO2-emission-free regional train and alternative to diesel power. It is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, its only emission being steam and condensed water while operating with a low level of noise. Alstom, a French company operating worldwide, is among the first railway manufacturers in the world to develop a passenger train based on such a technology.

Dr. Du talked about ways fuel cells could help the coal and other fossil fuel energy sources in the future.  If you put a fuel cell next to the fossil fuel energy source, you could use fuel cells there to make electricity,  put it right into the grid, and skip transportation/shipping altogether. If the CO2 is captured and put it into the ground, then the electricity would be carbon-free. But for this to happen, the fuel cells need to be bigger than they are now and more research is needed on capturing the carbon.

Future research into designs of fuel cells (to improve the ‘magic box’) are underway to improve their performance and to ramp up the size.  Some research is going into using ammonia instead of hydrogen as a fuel.

Kent State students are now experimenting with designing and building a solar fuel cell powered/zero emission golf cart which could be used to take guests around campus and demonstrate the technology.

We were fascinated by this presentation and excited by the help that this technology is lending to our clean energy future.  Dr. Du would like the community to learn more about fuel cells, and he encouraged anyone who would like to tour his lab to come anytime.  If he is not available, one of his students would be glad to show a visitor around.

Nature and Technology, an Unlikely Pair

The Fall 2016 issue of The Kent State Magazine (p. 13) revealed a new app, ParkApps, that allows visitors at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Cleveland MetroPark to interact with their cell phone to enhance their outdoor experience. “Using the phone’s GPS settings, the app buzzes to life as visitors move through the parks, pointing out historic sites, geologic formations and even explaining the eerie drone of the cicadas that emerged in northeast Ohio this summer after a 17-year slumber.”

While some people question the place of technology in nature, professor Richard Ferdig points out that, “At a zoo, you can use placards to point out what visitors should notice, but when you’re out in creation, that’s not practical.… This is a way to engage people with their surroundings, without putting a sign on every shrub or animal.”

Ferdig and his team at the Research Center for Educational Technology at the School of Lifespan Development, received the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning initiative grant of $952,000 to collaborate with the two parks and create the free ParkApps for the iPhone. (Android version to follow soon.)  The app also provides maps and conservation content designed to call attention to the parks’ natural assets and can be used as a tool for citizen science, allowing nature lovers to take part in data collection—for instance, to help keep tabs on the coyote population in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

For ParkApps, Ferdig was one of the winners of KSU’s 2016 Outstanding Research and Scholarship Award.Every year, the 2.5 million visitors to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park pose more than 110,000 questions and requests to the park’s rangers, and hopefully this app will spread the education even further.

To learn more about the app and download it, click here.

Submitted by Lorraine McCarty