Critical Essays

Pooped Out: An Energy Alternative - Nathan Phuong (High School Creative Writing Contest winner)

Measuring Worth - Ally Souligne (High School Creative Writing Contest winner)

Analysis of the Battle Royal Episode in Invisible Man - Cameron Coakes (High School Creative Writing Contest winner)

A Drop in a Bucket - Aaron Sandel (High School Creative Writing Contest winner)


Pooped Out: An Energy Alternative by Nathan Phuong

Last year, my cousin visited me from California. We barely arrived at my house when she asked me, "What is that stench?" Living near a farm community in Indiana, the fall season is almost always heralded by a fecal smell from the surrounding dairy farms. The odor was so strong that there was widespread opposition in our area to the expansion of dairy farms two years ago. Currently, there is an alternative to the conventional waste containment structures that are commonly used in dairy farms. Dairy farm waste can be better disposed of through bacteria that digests the waste and converts it into methane through a multi-step process called anaerobic digestion. Not only can anaerobic digestion systems be used to provide an alternative source of energy, but they can improve air cleanliness and minimize pollution.

Cow manure or “poop” is collected in open-air waste lagoons that can be up to several acres in size. The lagoons are prone to leakage and runoff that can pollute nearby lakes and rivers. In addition to bacterial contamination, algal blooms can also develop. These blooms consume oxygen in the water that is vital to wildlife. According to the National Research Defense Council, the agricultural industry is the largest source of nitrate pollution in groundwater. Drinking water with high levels of nitrate has been linked to spontaneous abortions. In 1993, more than one hundred people were killed when manure from dairy farms led to a Cryptosporidium contamination of Milwaukee's drinking water.

With so much waste generated by dairy farms, how do we dispose of it while minimizing environmental impact? It turns out that bacteria digest the waste and convert it into methane. Globally, the agriculture sector is the primary source of methane emissions. By mimicking the process that occurs naturally in cow intestines, anaerobic digestion systems can be created to harness methane generated from the breakdown of organic waste. Since oxygen is not needed for this process, it can occur in a closed container to prevent the odor from disseminating into the environment.

The conversion of cow manure to methane involves anaerobic digestion that occurs in several steps. There are two main types of microorganisms responsible for methane formation. First, acid forming bacteria break down solid waste into fatty acids. The fatty acids are then converted to methane via methanogenesis (Mara and Horan). Second, hydrogen-utilizing bacteria use hydrogen and reduce carbon dioxide to form methane. The methanogenic bacteria cannot tolerate oxygen and are strictly anaerobic (Lachavanne and Juge). They are sensitive to temperature (Monnet) and function optimally at ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit (Verma). Therefore, in addition to being heated, the digestion tanks need to be insulated underground.

The digestion tank is the primary structure in an anaerobic digestion system. The tank is usually made of concrete in order to provide adequate support for the waste and to withstand the pressure generated from the production of methane. The pipes used to transport the methane gas are located at the top of the airtight tank. This gas can either be stored or burned. Unlike propane, methane cannot be easily stored. If the temperature goes above -116 degrees Fahrenheit, methane cannot be liquefied at any pressure. As a result, methane can only be stored as a gas.

So how much methane can be obtained from cow manure? Methane generated from the manure of fourteen cows can provide 65,000 BTU (British Thermal Unit) of energy. This will allow a kitchen stove to be operated for two hours or a water heater for three hours. Thus, methane can be harvested for cooking or heating. In addition, electricity can also be generated by using methane to power the internal combustion engine of an alternating current generator. The cow manure from a hundred cows can generate enough energy to power fifteen houses a day.

In fact, a sewage treatment facility in Washington, D.C. invested $500 million to process waste using the anaerobic digestion concept. The methane generated is projected to save them ten million dollars in electricity costs per year. “It could be a game changer for energy,” said George Hawkins, an environmentalist who became General Manager of D.C. Water. “If we could turn every enriched-water facility in the United States into a power plant, it would become one of the largest sectors of clean energy that, at the moment, is relatively untapped.”

My mother used to tell me that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. The harvesting of energy from cow manure can potentially yield substantial dividends. Why is it that anaerobic digestion systems are not in widespread use in the United States? One reason is that a significant amount of upfront investment is needed in the construction and maintenance of these systems. The cost to build an anaerobic digestion system ranges from $150 to $500 per cow. This amounts to an annual operating cost that ranges from $11,000 to $47,000. For small farms with few cows and limited capital, it does not make sense to purchase an anaerobic digestion system. For their purposes, all the farms need are standard waste lagoons. Furthermore, research is needed to improve the efficiency of anaerobic digestion systems. Currently, large quantities of manure are required to generate a negligible amount of methane. As methane fuel is one of the major benefits of anaerobic digestion systems, it must be easily producible in order for the systems to be cost effective. Some ways to encourage widespread adoption of this method of energy production include providing financial or tax incentives to dairy farmers, tightening regulations on pollution control and making these systems more efficient and affordable.

Anaerobic digestion systems can simplify today’s energy challenges. Conventional open-air waste lagoons for cow manure occupy vast quantities of land and are detrimental to the environment. Methane generated from cow manure can be harvested for cooking or heating. Methane can also power the internal combustion engine of an alternating current generator to produce electricity. Despite their potential for yielding substantial dividends, anaerobic digestion systems are not in widespread use in the United States because of expense and inefficient methane production. These problems can be solved through improved affordability and methane-production efficiency of anaerobic digestion systems, financial or tax incentives for dairy farmers, and tightened regulations on pollution control. With all of this in mind, will we make the choice to utilize anaerobic digestion systems to minimize our environmental impact, or will we allow our environmental footprints to stamp Mother Nature to death?

Works Cited

“AgStar: Biogas Recovery in the Agriculture Sector”. 28 Jan. 2016. N. pag. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 29 Jan. 2016. <http://www.epa.gov/agstar>.

"Facts about Pollution from Livestock Farms." <i>NRDC:</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.

"Generating Methane Gas From Manure." G1881. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.

Halsey III, Ashley. “D.C. Water Adopts Norway’s Cambi System for Turning Sewage into Electricity and Fertilizer”. 05 Apr. 2014. N. pag. The Washington Post. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/dc-water-adopts-norways-cambi-system-for-turning-sewage-into-electricity-and-fertilizer/2014/04/05/3d456d7e-a642-11e3-9cff-b1406de784f0_story.html>.

Lachavanne, J.B., and R. Juge, eds. Biodiversity in Land-inland Water Ecotones. Paris, France: Unesco and the Parthenon Publishing Group, 1997. Print.

Mara, D., N. Horan, eds. Handbook of Water and Wastewater Microbiology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2003. Print.

Marks, Robbin. “How Factory Farm Lagoons and Sprayfields Threaten Environmental and Public Health.” Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Water Network. July 2001. Page 23. NRDC. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/cesspools/cesspools.pdf>.

Monnet, F. An Introduction to Anaerobic Digestion of Organic Wastes. Thesis. Scotland, 2003. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

"Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms Threatens Public Health." NRDC. N. pag. n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.

Verma, S. Anaerobic Digestion Of Biodegradable Organics In Municipal Solid Wastes. Thesis. School of Engineering & Applied Science Columbia University, 2002. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.


Measuring Worth by Ally Souligne

I begin to sort through my recent purchases from American Eagle, subconsciously expecting a wave of contentment to pass over me—as if these items will fill the void where happiness belongs. The goods have the ability to distract me for a while, but only until I find something else that I want. Well, as I have come to realize, the wanting never stops. There will always be something out there that I do not have. Oftentimes in my life, I have found myself caught up in our materialistic world. But as I have grown up and matured, I am beginning to understand that material items can only provide temporary pleasure.

Throughout my life, I have found that the gifts that make me the happiest are the ones that cannot be purchased. Reliable relationships, unwavering faith, and my ever-growing knowledge emerge as elements of my life that no amount of money could ever replace. These emotional connections and genuine memories have the ability to yield a lifetime of joy, while material goods can only supply a short-lived high. As I commonly find myself in a society obsessed with wealth, I aspire to be rich in other ways—rich in love, rich in faith, and rich in knowledge. The value of my well-being is far more important to me than the value of my wardrobe. I have progressed to the point in my life where I have finally recognized that it does not matter what I have—what matters is who I am. My worth is not measured by the value of my belongings, but by the values that I hold in my heart. This, I believe.


Analysis of the Battle Royal Episode in Invisible Man by Cameron Coakes

In Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the unnamed narrator recounts experiences that have impacted his life and his perception of society during the first half of the twentieth century. The speaker reveals himself to be an African American man born in the South, who is currently seeking employment in New York City, New York. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man uses the battle royal episode to suggest the idea that one’s identity is influenced by society.

Society demonstrates white citizens’ power during the event at which the narrator is invited to speak. Upon the narrator’s arrival to the occasion, he sees the men in opulent suits eating endless amounts of food, drinking fancy beverages, and smoking prestigious cigars (17).  The adolescent speaker takes notice of the extravagance, class, and status surrounding the white men and detects the correlation between being successful and being white. The narrator believes the white men to be of a more significant status not only because of what they are wearing and consuming, but because society has demonstrated to the narrator that white people are better. The white citizens hold powerful positions in society such as “bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants,” who are in the position to hold flashy gatherings (18). These occupations require higher education, receive steady incomes, and command respect from others. The sole reason the narrator is at the event is because the important men have decided he could be there; the narrator holds no choice in the matter. The protagonist knows his place in the social pecking order even before he steps foot in the hotel’s ballroom.

The white men’s power is reinforced to the narrator when the blonde dancer arrives to the affair. The speaker describes the scene of the woman trying to escape the influential men, and reveals, “… I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys” (20). The white men are able to do as they please without any regard for others, as they are the ones who run society. The black teenagers and the white woman hold the same sentiments of revulsion as they see the white men drunk with power. However, the black adolescents and the white dancer understand the only reason they are receiving money and are at the event is because of the white men. The amount of power the white gentlemen have and the roles they hold in society causes the protagonist to realize he will not be able to achieve that level of success and be seen as equal to those men because they are the ones controlling his future.

The Southern town demonstrates the attitude that black citizens should be directed by white citizens, indicating black people are unable to think properly for themselves. The narrator states, “… I was told since I was to be there anyways I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my classmates as a part of the entertainment” (17). The speaker being told what to do causes the protagonist to feel as though he needs the white men’s guidance to function. The narrator is merely a piece of amusement to the “big shots” of the town, which degrades his worth (17). The protagonist recollects, “But as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told” (21). The white men direct the black teenagers as if they have no freedom or rights, thus translating to the speaker’s having feelings of being inferior and fruitless. The society of white men has told the protagonist that he is there to entertain them, not because he is viewed as equally important as the white men to the community. After the fight, the M.C. states, “This boy was brought here to deliver a speech which he made at his graduation yesterday…” (29). The protagonist is not seen as a man worthy of giving a great speech, but as something brought to the big shots to please them. The constant feelings of being insignificant and being unable to make his own choices without guidance from the white men, culminates in the narrator desiring approval and acknowledgement from the influential men because he believes that is how he will achieve success.

The white community controls the black citizens to the point that the black citizens are dependent on the white citizens for their livelihoods . The speaker reveals, “ … we had words over the fact that I, by taking part in the fight, had knocked one of their friends out of a night’s work” (18). The classmates depend upon the important men for money to survive, yet the narrator depends upon them for his future . By choosing to have the narrator involved in the fight instead of a predetermined black teenager, the white men illustrate how easily replaceable the black boys are to them. The protagonist realizes the white society’s ability to control his life without raising any red flags. The realization is showcased in, “ … when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, ‘Oh, no you don’t, black bastard! Leave that alone!’’ (22) . After being horribly treated in the ring, the narrator reports, “I had no dignity,” signifying the effect the white men’s control has on him and his mentality (22) .

The white men at the event also control the narrator and his peers via the electric rug that houses money. The speaker does not know that the rug electrocutes whoever touches it, but all of the white men do and let the narrator and his classmates hurt to get a little bit more money. The speaker remembers, “The men roared above us as we struggled” (27) . The black teenagers’ role in the white men’s event is strictly entertainment; they are looked upon as game pieces, not as people . The protagonist’s identity is controlled by the white men; whatever they want him to be, he will be because he wants their approval . The white society’s control even affects him during the fight, “And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me?” (24) . The powerful men have an intense hold
on the narrator, causing him to constantly worry about gaining their approval and pleasing them.

The influential men dominate the narrator’s future . They decide to give him a scholarship to the state’s black university to which the speaker reacts with, “my eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly off the floor” (32) . The narrator reveals, “I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile” (32) . Despite the white men’s deceiving the teenage protagonist, he is thrilled that he has the support of the white men of his community . His following the white men’s commands and his enduring of pain and humiliation has earned him a college scholarship. The situation provides the narrator with an important correlation between doing as the white society pleases and receiving benefits. The narrator’s identity is turned into a puppet for the white men because the narrator comprehends that following their directions is how he will be able to achieve his goals.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man follows an unnamed African American narrator as he remembers the key events of his life . The novel’s battle royal episode contributes to the idea that one’s personality is affected by society . The speaker recalls how he is invited to speak at a white men’s event, only to be used in a fight with his peers for the enjoyment of the white men at the event. The experience affects his character and how he proceeds with his life going forward.


A Drop in a Bucket by Aaron Sandel

Drip, drip, drip. Slowly, but surely, water trickles to the barren bottom of the metallic bucket. Between each ping of water exists the agonizing seconds of watching the faucet drool another droplet, seemingly growing longer between each interval. What will we have to show from this effort in years to come? A semi-full bucket―one bearing meaningless beads of wasted endeavors. History has revealed that no ocean fills up in one day, but we are no ocean. How can we even fathom creating an ocean if we still struggle to fill a bucket? Search for that determination any man, woman, and child possesses. Summon all your strength, reach out, and turn the handle. Watch as those droplets become streams―first weak―then powerful. Listen to the pitch change as the water rises, playing the symphony of courage. Suddenly your bucket, brimming with the clearest, purest water, overflows. Those drops immediately water the grass you stand on, enacting change in others because you set your best foot forward. Now, struggling to lift the teaming container, the water created becomes purposeful. Sloshing this way and that, eventually giving new life to any being that demands sustenance. The bucket now stands empty, but the work remains far from over. The bucket returns to the original position, grass pressed down with a small circle in the soft dirt. Work begins again, and the spout bursts to life. Determination promises that the bucket will brim once again. After all, no rain appears forecasted for today. 

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