Betting on a hot market for syngas

Turning scrap metal and debris into energy may help U.S. ease its reliance on oil

By Robert Gavin Globe Staff / August 25, 2008

NEW BEDFORD – Take a rusting, hulking pile of scrap metal, add a few tons of construction debris, and what do you get?

In the case of Ze-gen Inc., a new source of energy.

Ze-gen, founded four years ago, is using the unappetizing conglomeration to make fuel for power plants.

Borrowing technology from the steel industry, the company turns scrap metal into a 2,800-degree metal bath and injects construction debris deep into the bubbling cauldron. The process produces a clean-burning , or syngas, that can replace natural gas or fuel oil.

Ze-gen has been proving its technology and the quality of syngas over the past year, operating a demonstration plant here that digests about a ton of debris an hour. The company is now considering several sites, primarily in the Northeast, to develop a commercial facility that could eventually process as much as 30 tons an hour and produce enough gas to fuel a plant that could power 20,000 homes.

It expects to begin commercial production at the end of next year.

“We’re solving two problems,” said Bill Davis, Ze-gen’s chief executive. “We’re eliminating wastes that would end up in a landfill and reducing fossil fuels.”

Ze-gen is one of many companies across the nation using gasification technologies to convert plant, wood, and other organic wastes – known as biomass – into syngas. Some like, Ze-gen, are simply making syngas, which has the same chemical components, carbon and hydrogen, as fossil fuels. Others, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff InEnTec LLC, of Bend, Ore., are condensing it into liquid to make ethanol.

InEnTec uses municipal solid waste as feed stock and a technology known as plasma gasification, initially developed at MIT several years ago to destroy hazardous materials. The technology essentially creates an artificial bolt of lightning that vaporizes materials. InEnTec applied the method to solid waste, producing a syngas, then introducing a catalyst to change the gas into liquid, which can be blended with gasoline.

InEnTec and a partner, Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc. of California, recently said they plan to break ground on a $120 million plant near Reno, Nev., by the end of the year, and begin commercial production of ethanol in 2010. The plant will process 90,000 tons of waste annually to produce 10.5 million gallons of ethanol. Including tipping fees (the charge for taking the waste), the company projects making ethanol for about $1 a gallon, said Dan Cohn, a cofounder of InEnTec and senior research scientist at MIT.

“Gasification has a lot of potential because the technology is well established and can process a very wide range of feed stocks,” Cohn said. “It has the greatest potential when you can process waste.”

Gasification, which uses heat to turn solids into gas, is indeed a well-established technology. Before the invention of the electric light, many cities and towns had plants that converted coal to gas for street lamps. With oil and natural gas prices soaring, coal gasification has gained new interest, but is controversial because coal gas produces high amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse emission that contributes to global warming.

Using biomass as a feed stock is considered more environmentally friendly because plants and trees can be regrown to absorb carbon dioxide created by burning syngas. In addition, keeping waste out of landfills reduces an even more potent greenhouse gas, methane, which is released during decomposition.

Reducing solid waste was a key consideration in the founding of Ze-gen. Davis said more than 300 million tons of waste end up in US landfills every year, about 15 percent of it wood waste from construction. Ze-gen’s idea: Tap the waste’s energy potential.

The company’s engineers determined that channel induction furnaces used in the steel industry provided an energy-efficient way to turn construction debris into a high-quality, clean syngas. The electricity used for the furnace offsets about 15 percent of the energy produced by the syngas, Davis said.

The construction debris is first ground up, then injected deep into the molten metal with ceramic cylinders, much like dipping forks into a fondue pot. The intense heat converts the debris to gas. Heavy metals, such as lead from paint, settle to the bottom of the bath while other contaminants are trapped in crust of silica, known as slag, that forms on top.

Ze-gen raised about $8 million from investors to build the demonstration plant at a New Bedford waste-transfer station. The next step is to find industrial partners to put the gas to work. Syngas is difficult and expensive to transport, so Ze-gen’s plan is to build production facilities near users such as power and cogeneration plants at large factories. Cogeneration produces steam as well as electricity.

Several large companies have expressed interest, Davis said. He estimates the company could make syngas for about 75 percent of the current price of natural gas on commodities markets, and less than half that of fuel oil. Tipping fees for taking the waste could further lower the cost, he said.

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Farmer turns to fruit tree to power tractors

By Rich PhillipsThe jatropha tree contains golf-ball-sized fruit that can be made into biodiesel.
CNN

LABELLE, Florida (CNN) — Bryan Beer, a citrus grower in southwestern Florida, sees himself as a bit of a pioneer. He’s not digging for gold. It’s more like he’s planting for oil.

The jatropha tree contains golf-ball-sized fruit that can be made into biodiesel.

He is planting a jatropha tree, a plant that can produce diesel fuel and could one day power a 747. His plans are a little less ambitious; he just wants to plant enough to run his tractors.

“Any kind of relief or help we can get from a cheaper source of oil could impact the agricultural industry tremendously throughout the country, throughout the world,” said Beer, whose family has been growing citrus for decades.

Jatropha means “doctor food.” It originated in South America, where it was once used for medicinal purposes. There are three seeds within the golf-ball-sized fruit. When pressed, its oil can be used as fuel in any standard diesel engine with zero processing, experts say.

Sound like a pipe dream? It’s not.

It’s being taken very seriously by companies all over the world, including the Chrysler motor company and Air New Zealand. The airline is planning a test flight in November in Auckland in which jatropha biodiesel will be mixed with diesel fuel.

This is what has farmers, scientists and engineers excited.

“It is a superior oil,” said Roy Beckford, an agricultural scientist with the University of Florida.

Air New Zealand says the quality and quantity of the product may be so good that the airline could run the test flight without having to mix the jatropha biofuel with any normal aviation fuel.

Beckford said countries like China, India and Brazil have planted millions of acres of jatropha, but the United States has yet to make that sort of investment.

“We are way, way behind these people,” he said. “But certainly we have the ability, and we have shown that over and over again that we can beat people on technology and applying that technology.”

Beckford has been experimenting to see how the tree grows best. He says jatropha can be grown in soil that is not suitable for most food crops.

“Even under harsh drought conditions with minimal amount of water or moisture, it will survive,” he said.

Jatropha is being tested in nurseries and farms, primarily in Florida and Hawaii, to see if it can be used as a viable alternative biofuel nationwide. Caribbean nations have used jatropha for years as biofuel and a home-made medicine to treat constipation and inflammation, Beckford said.

He says jatropha would probably never be the main biodiesel crop but should be added into the mix of biodiesel crops. “It think it’s going to be part of the equation.”

Beckford’s research is done on a small patch of land in Fort Myers, Florida, where 176 seedlings were planted last year. Some are fertilized; some are not. Some are exposed to insects, and some plants are scattered around the foundation of an old home.

Beckford showed how the jatropha plant thrived right in the middle of the foundation, within the dirt and rocks.

He and his researchers believe that U.S. technology will aid in the growth of the trees. Currently, each tree yields only about two gallons of oil a year.

“In the next four or five years, I think we’ll increase not only the fruits per jatropha tree, but we’ll also increase the amount of oil in each of those seeds,” Beckford said.

Right now, biodiesel is a growing industry but hasn’t made an appreciable dent on the global dependence on heavy crude oil, from which diesel fuel is processed.

The National Biodiesel Board says that less than 1 percent of the 60 billion gallons of diesel fuel used each year comes from biodiesel, most of it produced from soybeans, animal fats and recycled oil. But, the board says, the 20 million gallons of diesel fuel saved from these alternative fuels was the equivalent of eliminating the emissions from 700,000 cars.

Some consumer groups say it’s unrealistic to think that biofuel will replace oil totally. Experts also say the potential savings here may be offset by higher prices somewhere else as farmers use their more crop land to experiment with alternative fuel crops.

“There are implications to dedicating more and more crop land to fuel production rather than food production,” said Tyson Clocum of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “That comes in the form of tighter supplies for food production, and that leads to higher prices.”

Beer says he’s not looking to abandon his family’s citrus business. LaBelle Grove Management has been around for more than 40 years. He’s currently farming 30 acres of jatropha, compared to 2,500 acres of citrus.

Beer is trying to figure out how he’s going to afford to put diesel in his heavy equipment. He has four tractors that each run on 120 gallons a day.

“We have to have these machines running. If we don’t have these machines running and we don’t have diesel fuel, we don’t produce our crops,” he said.

So, for now, Beer is taking a stab at growing his own fuel. Jatropha won’t be a replacement crop for him, but it may help him fill up his tractor.

“To be a better America, we are going to have to have a secondary source besides oil,” he said.

Grass is greener in biofuel future

By Jessica Daly Stephen Long amid Miscanthus stalks found to outperform other biofuel sources.
as published via CNN

LONDON, England (CNN) — Researchers in the United States are buoyed by the results of a study which has determined that a giant grass could help the country to meet its steep biofuel targets.

Stephen Long amid Miscanthus stalks found to outperform other biofuel sources.

After successful long-term trials in Europe, a three-year field study of Miscanthus x giganteus by the University of Illinois has revealed that it outperforms traditional biofuel sources, producing more than twice the ethanol per acre than corn or switchgrass, using a quarter of the space.

Crop sciences professor and study leader Dr. Stephen Long told CNN that while there probably isn’t one magic bullet to fix our climate woes, Miscanthus — also known as elephant grass — promises to be one of five or six options that could help the U.S. to reach its target of replacing 30 percent of gasoline use with biofuels by 2030.

“I think it’s important in the biofuels debate that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The idea we use the sun’s energy to grow plants and then make fuels from those plants is essentially a good one,” Dr. Long said.

“It’s been tainted by the fact that the easy way to do it is to just use food crops, but society needs to realize there are big opportunities beyond food crops and beyond the use of crop land.”

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Miscanthus, for instance, is able to grow on land too marginal for crop production, so it doesn’t have to compete with land for food crops. It also doesn’t require major input or fertilization after planting and once established will yield for around 15 years.

Yet even with the success of these trials in the U.S. and the earlier European ones, it could be years before the full potential of Miscanthus is realized.

This is due in part to the fact that it’s much more complex to make cellulosic ethanol — ethanol made from non-food plants — than it is to turn simple food starches found in corn or wheat into ethanol.

In the United Kingdom, Miscanthus is recognized by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as an energy crop and it’s currently being used to co-fire the Drax power station in England’s Yorkshire.

Even still, Dr. Geraint Evans from the UK’s National Non-Food Crops Centre said rather than plants like Miscanthus, wheat grain will be used to meet the UK target of replacing five percent of fuel with renewable sources by 2010.

“Miscanthus has the potential to be more efficient, producing between 4,000 and 7,000 liters of fuel per hectare, whereas ethanol made from wheat grain makes about 1900 liters per hectare.”

“Wheat grain-derived ethanol is what we can do today with the technology we have available today. The technology to use Miscanthus is not yet commercially available,” Dr. Evans told CNN.

In addition to the technical hitch, Dr. Evans said a further downside is that even though Miscanthus is a low maintenance crop, it can be costly to plant compared to wheat or rapeseed canola and the first yield wouldn’t occur for at least three years.

In an effort to overcome some of the challenges, Dr. Long now intends to turn his attention to experimenting with the wild Miscanthus used in the U.S. trial.

And if the sort of improvements made to corn in the last 50 years are any indication, Miscanthus could be well be used to fuel the future in a matter of years.