Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Fuel from a load of rubbish?

Sunday Canberra Times
13 February 2011, Page: 27

IS the stuff of sci fi movie legend vaporising household garbage and turning it into a power source? But now this concept is being investigated as a new frontier in dealing with the global load of household waste. Researchers in America have floated plans to tear rubbish into its constituent atoms with electricity, similar to a process which has been used in Australia for about 15 years to destroy hazardous waste including greenhouse gases.

Geoplasma, a firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, has said it believed there was a future in destroying garbage and, in the process, harnessing the mixture of chemicals released to create syngas that could then be used for energy creation. The syngas comes from a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Canberra CSIRO research scientist Andrew Warden said the development of the technology had great potential and could perhaps one day be used to create petrol for vehicles. "

The potential to use syngas for petrol is at a less mature stage of development", he said. However, the potential to use it to make ethanol, seems more easily within reach. GM Holden has teamed with Caltex and the American company Coskata and a consortium of others, with plans to build a biofuel plant in Victoria. It wants to use household waste to make syngas, which will then be transformed into ethanol. Coskata already has a pilot ethanol program in the US.

The consortium intends that the ethanol would be blended into an alternative fuel known as E85, a mixture of up to 85% ethanol and 15% petrol. Every year, Australian company SRL Plasma destroys hundreds of tonnes of hazardous waste, turning it into harmless liquid salt which can then be flushed into the sewer system. General manager of SRL Plasma Neville Taylor said it used technology developed by the CSIRO at the request of the Australian Government which was desperate in the late 1980s to safely dispose of hazardous materials and later in the 1990s for those which were harming the ozone layer.

What eventuated was a system that destroyed harmful gases with artificial lightning from electric plasma torches that heated matter to a temperature higher than the surface of the sun. "The first of the plascon systems was developed in Victoria in 1992, which destroyed waste from the manufacturing of agricultural chemicals and still does", Taylor said. "About the same time people were getting very concerned about the hole in the ozone layer and that's when the halon gases started to be stockpiled. "Halon gases are great at putting out fires and for putting holes in the ozone layer. There is a national halon bank now".

The technology has spread and SRL Plasma has sold four of its torches to plants in Japan which destroy organic waste, two in the US which destroy greenhouse gases and another two to Mexico. Taylor said that, in his opinion, Australia should not be in a rush to join the research push. "Just for starters, a plant like this [destroying garbage for energy production] would cost tens, probably hundreds, of millions of dollars", he said.

"With the knowledge of plasma, technology right now, it's not at that break even point. That system is a few years away". Taylor said he was "not privy to the numbers" held by a number of American companies carrying out such research, but knew the ones his company had done. "The cost of landfill in Europe for instance is high and the cost of electricity is high as well so there maybe you could break even but not here", he said.

"There are technologies being developed overseas about 20 companies in the US are working on it. If you wait for them to be finished you can cherry pick what you want. "It would be better [for Australian researchers] to do work on issues that are unique to Australia". SRL Plasma has a large plant in Tottenham. Victoria, which is dedicated to the destruction of greenhouse gases including CFCs, CFCs and PFCs.

Taylor said a lot of the hazardous wastes were refrigeration gases, extracted from from air conditioners, industrial coolers and household fridges. "The amount of gases we destroy is roughly equivalent to shutting down a small to medium sized coal fired power station", he said. However, there is no real benefit in destroying carbon gases created by power stations. "The process itself actually uses a lot of energy", he said. "So there's no real overall environmental benefit from that".

GM Holden's energy and environment director 's vision was to cut Australia's petrol consumption by up to 30% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through syngas technology. GM Holden launched a car last year than can run on the E85 fuel, a Commodore VE series II. "It's about designing and engineering vehicles for Australians, built by Australians, using Australian fuel alternatives", Marshall said.

In the US, GM is a major producer of flex fuel vehicles and has more than 3.5 million E85 capable cars already on the road. It is intended that the Victorian plant, once built, would be capable of turning out more than 200 million litres of ethanol a year. Caltex _Australia's spokesman, Andy Walz, said the petrol giant was committed to installing E85 pumps in 100 metropolitan and regional service stations over the next 12 months.

"Caltex's expansion into this new fuel and participation in the consortium is part of our ongoing commitment to biofuels and tackling climate change, which fits well with a strategy of providing energy beyond the traditional fuel mix, he said. "Caltex already has about 400 service stations that sell E10 and a growing biodiesel market. "We believe the biofuels industry has a vital role in a sustainable transport fuels future and that biofuels are good business opportunity for Caltex". Chief marketing officer for Coskata Wes Bolsen said there not all biofuels were created equal.

"We don't make fuel from food crops, we use sources like municipal waste that have reached the end of their lifecycle and turn them into renewable energy, which leads to a net positive effect for the environment:" he said.