After the Flush

  • Posted: February 1, 2018
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Our President has once more scandalized the finely calibrated sensibilities of the Adorables. Negotiating a compromise on the so-called “Dreamers” in a private meeting, President Trump made a crude reference to “sh*thole countries”. In a world where no one dares to speak an honest thought, this is simply unacceptable, an impeachable offense. In a world where private meetings no longer exist, blunt speech is an unaffordable luxury. While the media reviles President Trump for his unrepentant crudity, the man who committed the contemptible act of violating an oath of secrecy, Senator Durbin (D-IL), is simply doing politics as usual and honored by that same media for his “patriotism”.

Of course the slimy ethics of Senator Durbin aside, everyone knows our President was simply acknowledging the truth, though in a repellent manner. My goodness!! President Trump is lewd and crude!!! What else is new? Evidently his mother didn’t have access to a bar of Lifebuoy in The Donald’s childhood to punish his imitation of the father’s vernacular. Lifebuoy was my Mom’s answer to lewd and crude. Though as my doppelganger, Ralphie, noted in his star turn in “A Christmas Story”, Palmolive does have some nice qualities. But to judge by what comes up when you Google “wash kids mouth with soap”, most men of the future will grow up mouthing politically correct opinions in a most expletive laced manner.

The sad fact is that a large part of humanity not born in a country blessed by a long and deep commitment to the Enlightenment and Christianity actually do live in a “sh*thole”. This is not to say anything about their worth as people or the value of their culture. People in these places simply are cursed to live in a place where sh*t, or to use a more polite term p**p, is everywhere. If you find this idea culturally demeaning and offensive, I would invite you to visit one of those “sh*thole” countries and drink the water.

To borrow the title of a book popular with mothers of the toddler set, “Everyone Poops”. Taro Gomi hit the mother lode with that book. He even achieved that ultimate peak of personal status, his own Wikipedia page. The book points out a salient fact of our humanity. Everyone poops and if they are lucky, everyone poops every day.

This is a problem for civilization, especially for cities. Everyone poops everyday creates a lot of poop. Left unsaid are the complementary oceans of urine, after all everyone pees. Perhaps there is another best seller lurking in that fact?

For much of history, virtually everybody did live in a “sh*thole”. Poop was everywhere and in everything. Everyday disease and periodic epidemics not only killed high percentages of urban populations, but left those surviving weak and sick much of the time. Was it medical professionals who did so much to dramatically reduce child mortality rates, or was it civil engineers and basic sanitary engineering? Medicine and engineering both did their part, but removing waste from the urban environment was a piece of heavy lifting that allowed for medical interventions to be practical.

Poop is, and always has been, a serious problem for civilization. As America’s sanitary habits decline, disease control becomes more difficult. Anyone visiting Men’s bathrooms in gas stations or restaurants is aware of the laissez faire attitude men have towards elementary sanitation discipline. But has proved true in our nation over the past fifty years, men’s bad behaviors become common with women as well only a generation or two later.

Social commentaries aside, those massive amounts of poop are a real problem, particularly in the dense urban environments home to the Adorables. Parents everywhere, Adorable and Deplorable alike, struggle with their toddler’s to connect their body functions with those strange white chairs in the small room with hard surfaces. But what happens when the shiny handle is pulled and the icky stuff goes down the rabbit hole?

As with most things in modern society, nobody knows, or cares much for that matter…. Adorables are different even though they do not know what happens either. But to atone for their ignorance, they care a lot, at least about whether it is organic, sustainable, ethically sourced, non-GMO, recycled, carbon neutral, biodegradable, eco-friendly and renewable. It goes without saying that it shouldn’t be icky or seen as inappropriate cultural appropriation.

But what does happen to the poop after the shiny handle is pushed and it goes “Whoosh”? I make no pretention to encyclopedic knowledge, after all I’m not a civil engineer because I don’t like icky stuff either. But I have been downstream of the flush, up close and personal. Back in the day, I was a consulting engineer, on my own and hungry for clients.

Have calculator will travel reads the card of an engineer,

A man without health insurance in an urban land

He travels on to wherever there’s work

a chess knight of No. 2 lead is his badge of trust.

There are lunchroom legends that the cube farmers spin

Of the man with the calculator, of the man called Paladin

You have to be pretty old to get that bit of cultural appropriation.

Back in that olden time, one of my clients was the LASCD – Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. As you might guess, Los Angeles is home to a lot of poop, but despite suspicions out in fly-over country, it is not a sh*thole. So one realizes that LASCD knows a lot about poop and how to make it go away. Of course the Pacific Ocean is right there and that was the solution for a long time. But as LASCD learned, even the ocean can be overwhelmed by massive amounts of poop. One hopes that Hollywood will some day avail themselves of LASCD expertise. (The sound of me slapping my face echoes in the room)

Some thirty-five years ago, LASCD was face to face with the problem of poop overload. What to do? What to do? The organization being blessed with engineers in their management, they came up with a solution. The engineers in question being civil engineers they had to hire outside help. (Again the sound of me slapping my face echoes through the room)

All snarkiness aside, the engineers of LASCD created an Adorable solution, a model of green brown energy to be called The Total Energy Facility. Already existing on the outlet flange of Los Angeles’s toilets was the result of many previous decades of work, a complex network of sewer piping and breakout stations throughout LA County separating solids waste, i.e. poop, from wastewater. More piping then delivered the solids from these breakout stations to a central location down in the City of Carson. There the poop was spread out in large fields and windrowed, allowing it to air dry. The dried poop was then sold as a fertilizer/soil amendment. Think about that next time you drink Sunkist orange juice, snack on almonds or use an avocado to make guacamole.

As Carson was, and continues to be, home to Southern California’s extensive refining and petrochemical industry, the aromatic hydrocarbons emanating from windrowed acres of brown stuff didn’t matter all that much, after all one hydrocarbon smells much like another hydrocarbon. Anybody with the money to afford a nose was long gone. As that same City of Carson is the new home of San Diego’s NFL franchise, the Chargers, one wonders what might be said during the game’s color commentary on those infrequent occasions when a Chargers home game is telecast.

But in the late 1970’s surging volumes of new poop made better solutions necessary. And so was born the Total Energy Facility. I thought it a cool concept at the time and still do. Down in Carson at the existing facility, the poop would be continue to be pumped into existing large covered tanks and allowed to ferment. It turns out that grapes and grains aren’t the only things that ferment.

As you might know from personal experience, fermenting poop throws off large quantities of gases. As you might remember from college, this gas is flammable.

These large tanks, called Digesters, are vented, allowing the bubbling fermentation gases to be collected. Previously most of this gas had been flared (college dorms on a gigantic scale) or burned in aging engine generator sets on site. But in the new Total Energy Facility, the gas would be piped into the suctions of compression equipment.

Multiple stages of compression would take the digester off gases from atmospheric pressure to 300-400 pounds of pressure. This high-pressure gas, known in the trade as a super f*rt, is then used to fuel gas turbines generating electricity. In this case, the Total Energy Facility used three Solar Mars gas turbines to generate 25 megawatts, or to use another more modern measure, 15 windmills worth.

For the purposes of this journey into the dark recesses of LA’s sewers, we will ignore the expensive complexity of this process. The gases coming off the digesters are dirty, wet and full of things that must be removed before becoming turbine fuel. To be technical, there is a lot of icky stuff that must be taken care of. But eventually the poop in the digester is no longer burping and must be disposed of to make room for new poop. Since most of what originally went into the digester is still there, this is a large problem. Just as you might expect, the stuff coming out of the digester looks a lot like what went into the digester.

Rather than conveying this digester sludge onto windrows for air drying, the next step in the Total Energy Facility was to take the brown stuff coming out of the digester and burn it in a boiler to generate steam. Most of that brown stuff is carbon or a carbon compound, just like coal and all the other fossil fuels. But this carbon won’t contribute to Climate Change because even though it appears to be brown, it is green. (Smiley face)

Some of the steam produced by the boilers would be used to heat the digesters. It is a fact that warm poop ferments faster than cold poop, something you might want to remember next time your husband wants to run the air conditioner. But most of the steam generated in the boilers would be used to generate additional electricity in a steam turbine.

Talk about eco-friendly renewable energy! This is really a cool idea. The only problem is that the stuff coming out of the digester won’t burn in a boiler, or anywhere else for that matter. It remains a wet slop coming out of the digester, much like it went in. To burn in a boiler or anywhere else for that matter, most of the water must be removed. A not easy task! And the water when removed looks a lot like the digester sludge it came from. The clean up problems just go on and on.

But, engineers to the rescue! There is a solution. As all engineers know, problems are just Nature’s way of creating something for engineers to do. Problems needing solution just require an engineer’s time and somebody else’s money. We are a lot like politicians in that regard.

But going back to the sludge. The digester sludge would be pumped into banks of centrifuges, lots and lots of them. Think of centrifuges just like your clothes washer. Buildings full of these machines would spin thousands of tons per day of de-gassed poop at high speed to wring the water out. Coming out of the centrifuges, the poop is spun dry but still not dry enough to burn. Additional drying is required to prepare the digester sludge for use as boiler fuel.

Unfortunately, traditional gas fired driers, like your clothes dryer, didn’t make any sense in this application. It takes more energy to dry the poop than the poop creates in burning. Since the Total Energy Facility was built before the age of Climate Change hysteria, spending hundreds of millions of dollars for complex equipment and operations in a power plant to use more energy than created was not an option.

So instead the LASCD was driven to find a more efficient way to remove the water. LASCD finally settled on the Carver-Greenfield process. As it happens, if you live in Denver you probably have been exposed to the emissions from a Carver-Greenfield process. Coors uses it to dry fermented grains at their brewery in Golden, CO.

The Total Energy Facility used the Carver-Greenfield process to dry the digester poop coming out of the centrifuges. After the centrifuges, the poop is soaked in hot oil, oil very like the oil used to fry French fries. In fact, those who know, tell me that an operating Carver-Greenfield plant smells a lot like lunchtime outside McDonalds. After soaking, the poop is sent through mechanical presses to remove the oil. The oil, now saturated with water, is then pumped into distillation columns. In these distillation columns, steam heat from the boilers distills the water out of the oil, which dehydrated oil then recycles back into new volumes of poop.

The now dry poop is fed by conveyer belt into a boiler where its heat of combustion generates modest amounts of steam. Most of the poop is now gone, but a surprising amount of poop is mineral in composition. That means it doesn’t burn, instead remaining as ash in the boiler. This ash, which is now classified as a hazardous waste, is then collected and trucked to a landfill, a landfill permitted for hazardous waste disposal.

And so the journey down the sewer ends, at least in the County of Los Angeles thirty-five years ago. The expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars and the operation of a facility whose complexity far exceeds that of a power plant is necessary to keep Los Angeles from becoming a sh*thole. It was the claim of LASCD that the Total Energy Facility could generate enough energy that it was self-sufficient. So they claimed anyway.

The Total Energy Facility is not the only way to deal with the poop of a large urban population. But all of the ways required for dealing with humanity’s wastes, seen and unseen, require the attitudes and skills of engineering, which requires not only substantial financial resources, but also civic purpose. Since there are always more needs than money for those needs, civic purpose is necessary to determine which needs will be met. As the Adorables recoil in disgust from Donald Trump’s reference to sh*thole countries, they might ponder how and why it is that we do not live in a sh*thole country.

It is one of life’s ironies that America’s Adorable population is concentrated in dense urban populations. As noted earlier, America’s Adorables care very deeply about a lot of things. But as a Deplorable traveling among the Adorables, it is hard not to notice an odd dichotomy. It appears to a Deplorable that the Adorables must be a very altruistic group of people. One is struck by the observation that the Adorables care deeply about people, places and things that they know very little about, that do not actually touch the Adorables. But to travel in Adorable country is to see an infrastructure in neglect, an infrastructure that serves those Adorables every day in every way.

It is not that money isn’t available. America’s Adorables pay heavily for the privilege to live where they do, in taxes, tolls, user fees and all the other ways clever governments think up. But the roads and bridges they travel on, the mass transit that moves them through their city streets, the gas piping heating their apartments and offices, the switchgear and wires providing electricity for their Tesla’s, to the practiced eye, it all looks very old and patched up. There is an unmistakable miasma of decay and obsolescence in America’s urban enclaves.

This is the issue of civic will, and in most of America, the civic will is the will of the Adorables. The Adorables have a near monopoly on the legislatures, the offices of government, the media and the legal ecology that allocates resources. America’s civic will is determined by and implemented by the Adorables. And at least to this Deplorable, it appears that infrastructure is not very high on the list of things Adorables care about.

There is a great mass of infrastructure in a city hidden from view. Out of sight, out of mind is the old saying. Our poorly maintained roads and rails can be seen. Our overstretched and poorly maintained electrical infrastructure is highlighted when storms or blackouts leave us without power. We see our aging and decrepit urban gas or water pipeline infrastructure when it breaks in some city street. But one wonders at the great mass of hidden infrastructure connected to those strange white chairs in the small rooms with hard surfaces in Adorable country. It may be that we will soon acquire a closer appreciation of “sh*thole” country.

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