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NASA Warms Up To Maryland's Trash
Imagine heating your house with trash. That's what NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. is doing.


image of a landfill

Methane's a natural product of the decomposition of trash. Click here for animation Courtesy: NASA

The space agency harnesses methane gas from a nearby landfill and uses it to fire boilers that produce steam, heating 31 buildings at the Center. "The environmental benefits are huge," said Barry Green, Goddard Energy Manager. "We are reducing emissions equivalent to taking 35,000 cars off the road per year or planting 47,000 acres of trees."

NASA will save taxpayers more than $3.5 million over the next decade in fuel costs. Goddard is the first federal facility to heat its buildings with landfill gas.

Landfill gas provides all of the center's heating needs 95 percent of the time, with natural gas serving as the back up.

One County's Trash is NASA's Treasure


animated GIF of landfill/methane process
This is a continuously running animated GIF - Slide 1 is the trash truck picking up trash from the neighborhoods. The last slide shows the methane gas being used in buildings at the Goddard Space Flight Center. If you refresh your page, the animated GIF will start over.

Over half of the solid waste generated in the United States is disposed in landfills, where it naturally decomposes and produces landfill gas. By volume, landfill gas is about 50 percent methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and 50 percent carbon dioxide. It also contains trace amounts of non-methane organic compounds, which contribute to odors and smog if left uncontrolled. Recovering landfill gas and using it to produce energy significantly reduces emissions of these compounds.

Prince George's County Sandy Hill Landfill has collected about 5.2 million tons of trash and is expected to generate landfill gas for at least 30 years. NASA plans to use the gas for at least 10 years. "We're hoping to extend that use to 20 years," Green says.

Cleaning Gas

Photo of Landfill Gas Processing Plant, Sandy Hill Landfill in Bowie, Md.
Landfill Gas Processing Plant, Sandy Hill Landfill. This plant purifies the gas before sending it to Goddard Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA

Flare at Sandy Hill Landfill


Flare at Sandy Hill Landfill, Courtesy NASA
Before Goddard used Sandy Hill's landfill gas, all of it was burned off in a flare. A few years ago, Dallas-based Toro Energy, approached NASA offering landfill gas as a way to reduce fuel costs while helping to protect the environment. At no cost to the government, the company built a purification plant and a five-mile pipeline from the Prince George's County Sandy Hill Landfill to Goddard. Torro also modified two boilers at Goddard.

Unused landfill gas is burned off in a flare. The flare burns up any volatile organics and breaks down the methane to carbon dioxide and water.

Now the gas is intercepted from the flare and directed to an on site purification plant where the gas is cleaned and sent to Goddard.

Partnerships were key to completing this project. The Environmental Protection Landfill Agency's Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) provided expertise to help complete this project. Other key partners include Prince George's County, Toro Energy and Waste Management.

Gassing Up

Prince George's County Sandy Hill Landfill, Bowie MD
Sandy Hill Landfill, Bowie MD. Courtesy NASA.
Photo of wells drawing methane out of landfill
Wells draw methane out of landfill. Courtesy: NASA- Click here for animation .

Methane is drawn out of the landfill by wells that look like long perforated pipes. Click for animation of methane collection.

Methane is a natural product of trash. Waste Management Inc. placed over 80 wells approximately 250 feet apart all over the Sandy Hill Landfill. The wells are attached to a central vacuum system that sucks out the methane and delivers it to the purification plant.

Gas Purification Process

Landfill gas processing plant


Purification Plant - Click here for animated tour of purification process Courtesy: NASA

Water free gas is much easier to transport through a five-mile pipeline and easier to burn. Therefore, water removal is a major part of the landfill gas purification process.

There are four major steps to purifying the landfill gas.

1. Filters in the landfill gas purification plant sift out tiny particles and water.
2. A gas compressor squeezes out more water.
3. The gas is then chilled drawing out even more water.
4. The plant reheats the gas and transports it to Goddard.