The Metabolizer Turns Trash Into Treasure

The amount of stuff we humans throw away is too damn high, and a bunch of it harms the ecosystem. But what are you gonna do? [Sam Smith] thinks we can do better than shoving most of it in a landfill and waiting for it to break down. That’s why he’s building The Metabolizer. It’s a series of systems designed to turn household trash (including plastic!) into useful things like fuel, building materials, and 3D prints.

The idea is to mimic the metabolism of a living organism and design something that can break down garbage into both useful stuff and fuel for itself. [Sam] is confident that since humans figured out how to make plastic, we can figure out a system to metabolize it. His proof-of-concept plan is to break down waste into combustible, gaseous fuel and use that fuel to power a small engine. The engine will power an open-source plastic shredder and turn a generator that powers an open-source plastic pellet printer like the SeeMeCNC Part Daddy.

Shredding plastic for use as a biomass requires condensing out the tar and hydrocarbons. This process leaves carbon monoxide and hydrogen syngas, which is perfect for running a Briggs & Stratton from Craigslist that’s been modified to run on gaseous fuel. Condensation is a nasty process that we don’t advise trying unless you know what you’re doing. Be careful, [Sam], because we’re excited to watch this one progress. You can watch it chew up some plastic after the break.

If [Sam] ever runs out of garbage to feed The Metabolizer, maybe he could build a fleet of trash-collecting robots.

35 thoughts on “The Metabolizer Turns Trash Into Treasure

  1. “The amount of stuff we humans throw away is too damn high, and a bunch of it harms the ecosystem. But what are you gonna do? [Sam Smith] thinks we can do better than shoving most of it in a landfill and waiting for it to break down. ”

    Wait till household fusion is developed.

  2. Many municipalities do this. Throwing it all into a microwave induced plasma furnace is way more efficient and environmentally friendlier than cracking it in a still you made out of scrap in your back yard. That’s not to say it can’t be done but some things are just easier to do at large scale.

    1. You just reminded me of a TV news article I saw last summer while in England.
      A company that recycles foil lined plastic (e.g. potato chip (potato crisps -Jenny)) bags.
      They microwave the bags and that separates the alumin[i]um from the plastic. The Al goes to recyclers and the plastic products are burned to power the microwave as well as sold off to chemical companies.

  3. It is actually a common misconception that trash in a landfill breaks down. On the contrary, landfills are made hermetic, so that the amount of chemical reactions inside is minimized, so that no gases or poisonous leaks are produced. We are basically sealing all this trash for the next generations to worry about.
    Even if it’s a paper mug, if it lands in a landfill, it’s not going to decompose any time soon.

      1. And in a south suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a soccer field was made over an old landfill. After a couple of mysterious blasts, the gasses are now being vented.

      2. I ran several “Gas To Energy” turbines starting in 1985.. Landfill gas..
        Some were gas turbines, and three were steam turbines. We even built a “Trash to Energy” boiler, steam of course… Not uncommon..
        Even our sewer plant burned the gas from the sludge and ran the machines that sorted the
        the solids from liquids.

  4. 20 yrs back there were landfills with vertical pioes driven into them; an after-the-fact idea. Gases were methane, then, as no separation was.practiced.

    Crowd fund? Kudos for the mindset!

    1. My municipality has been generating power from landfill gas for 30-years or more. Once a dump is full, they bury a grid network of collection pipes just beneath the surface, and the turbines scream night and day.

  5. Respectfully another example where fails to give all pertinent details. What organisms will be used to break down plastic and/or paper into a liquid that can can be heated to produce vapors? The petroleum feed into the distillation tower as illustrated was created under the condition of the passage of time, and with the heat generated by great pressure. Pressure created by thousands of feet of strata above the ancient oceans where carbon life is had been cooking until humans became capable of tapping the resource. Perhaps as burning plant material will produce gas that can be consumed, so would the burning of plastic. but that’s not the process being illustrated here.

  6. Re-inventing the egg: In third world countries, where they recycle, you sell your trash to the highest bidder, and they simply use off-the-shelf garden chipper/ shredders to make things like PET chips. This looks like an awful lot of screwing about, only to come up with something I think a 5-sheet office paper shredder could take to school.

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