06 March 2008

Tremendous demand on our resources

Innovation has always been a prominent feature for Disney and its brand. From the multi-plane camera, the monorail, the storytelling of Walt’s features, the 9-acre utilidors complex, and even the Experimental Prototype Community of tomorrow (Walt’s plans not EPCOT Center). But some of the most interesting, and ingenious, ideas to ever come from Disney, specifically from Walt Disney World, receive little or no publicity. The AVAC (Automated Vacuum Collection) trash-disposal system, a system which uses pneumatic tubes to direct refuse from various positions to a central collection area, the installation of the first 911 telephone system in Florida, and perhaps the most obscure, and today’s topic, the Water Hyacinth Project.

In a nutshell, the Water Hyacinth Project was a ten year research program, which began in 1978, that studied the use of water hyacinths to treat waste water and to produce useful byproducts. Sewage, in various stages of treatment, is sent into one of five quarter-acre canals (based upon their current treatment level) which are then filled with water hyacinths. The water hyacinths’ roots feed on the material in the water. When the plants had completely filled themselves, they were removed and replaced by fresh plants. On average, a ton and a half of plants were removed daily and fifty-five thousand gallons of water was treated (90 percent of material in the water was removed, in accordance with EPA standards for treatment) daily throughout the ten year program.

But what of the approximate five-thousand four-hundred and sixty tons of water hyacinths that were harvested from the treated water over the years? This plant matter was put to many productive uses. The first attempted use of the used plants was as animal feed, unfortunately, the animals did not develop a taste for the water hyacinths. For the next five years the material was used as fertilizer. In 1983, the Gas Research Institute developed a method which turned the water hyacinths into pipeline-quality methane gas. Other uses for the plant matter included paper, particleboard, and the like.

Who then, could benefit, or would show interest, in a research study such as this one? When the Water Hyacinth Project began, it had the support of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was followed by NASA’s interest, in short order. As stated above, the Gas Research Institute also took on a role in the program in 1983. In the years following the ten year project, the cities of Orlando, Florida, San Diego, California, and Austin, Texas have all implemented treatment plants based off of the data compiled from Walt Disney World’s Water Hyacinth Project.

In the end, this may not be a solution most cities can look to. Disney itself cautions that, or rather focuses on how, this project is best suited for smaller metropolises that cannot afford the larger, and more commonly seen, water treatment plants. And while this may not be a practical way to condition water in our future, it is nice to know that Walt Disney World, among other companies, are always look for new, and better, solutions to old problems.

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