Disposable diaper diesel

A source of power that will never be exhausted.

Published October 31, 2007 4:06PM (EDT)

Cloth versus disposable? I can't speak for every new parent, but in Berkeley, Calif., the diaper decision is a rite of nature. Landfill costs for disposables are measured against the detergent and water used to clean the dirty cloth diapers. The non-biodegradability of Pampers versus their undeniable convenience sums up, in one stinking little package, the trade-offs that humans make every day as they navigate the challenges of sustainability. We cheer the arrival of that glorious moment when potty training is finally accomplished, not just because it marks the end of a particular strand of parental toil, but because it means we no longer have to feel guilty about using disposables or ever have to wash another damn diaper cover in our lives.

But now comes a potential game-changer. In his weekly "Clean Break" column for the Toronto Star, Tyler Hamilton describes a plan to turn disposable diapers into a "synthetic diesel fuel."

The plan involves using pyrolysis, which Hamilton defines as a technique that "chemically breaks down organic materials, literally cracking their molecules, by heating them up in an oxygen-starved chamber." The byproducts from busting up the disposable diapers would include "a synthetic methane-like gas, a diesel-like oil and carbon-rich char."

Business plans for turning waste into fuel abound, but the intriguing aspect to the diaper plan is that engineers know exactly what they're getting when the dump truck rolls into the factory with a load of disgusting Huggies.

Hamilton writes:

...Turning municipal solid waste into energy can be tricky because of the inconsistency of materials or "feedstock" that must be handled.

The feedstock can range from old clothes to banana peels to yogurt containers to refrigerator doors, and this batch of unpredictable ingredients makes it difficult to control the molecular breakdown of each so that the good molecules can be separated from the bad.

On the other hand, you know that with diapers you've got a consistent stream of plastics, resins, fibers, excrement and urine. This consistency of feedstock improves the efficiency of the pyrolysis process.

I'm not sure I ever looked at a used diaper and thought to myself, hmm, that's some consistent feedstock! The opposite is more likely true. But I do look forward to the day when my diesel hybrid plug-in is partially diaper-powered. That would be a true sign of progress.

Next up: turning 2-year-old tantrums into a power source. I swear, you could light every home in the Bay Area for a week if you could just figure out how to capture that energy.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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