January 30, 2007

MIT/PNNL Plasma Arc Waste-to-ethanol Solution

Plasma arc systems represent the very high heat end of the gasification technology scale generating temperatures at 1,000°C and above to vaporize feedstock into gaseous form. The hotter the fire, the broader the range of odious feedstocks that can be cleanly converted into syngas.

It generally takes about 160 megawatts per hour to feed the energy needs of the plasma arc from which can be derived about 600 megawatts of electricity.

An article about a MIT and Integrated Environmental Technologies collaboration to perfect and deploy the technology was recently written up in Technology Review magazine.

Liquid fuel from common trash: new technology converts municipal waste into ethanol

A new conversion technology takes organic items otherwise headed for the landfill and turns them into usable fuel. The double-punch effect of this technology comes from the fact that it vaporizes organic material, releasing a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can be synthesized to create other gasses and chemicals. To be used as fuel, the synthesized gas would be converted to ethanol and methanol.

The originators of this technology are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs of Richland, Wash. The technology is now being commercialized by a spin-off of PNNL named Integrated Environmental Technologies, also from Richland, that already works in the waste-to-energy business.

One scientist told the magazine Technology Review that if this conversion process becomes widely available, it could reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil for fuel.

Daniel Cohn, a cofounder of IET and a senior research scientist at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, told Technology Review that with the amount of municipal and industrial waste created in the United States, the new fuels could “replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline used in this country,” the magazine reported.

The process to create ethanol can be used not only for municipal waste, but also agricultural biomass waste. This means that it has the potential to create ethanol without relying on corn plants, which is a large part of how ethanol fuel is currently produced. By using municipal, industrial and agricultural waste instead of an agricultural crop, in theory it is a more reliable source of material.

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