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.
Ethanol is most commonly used today as part of a blend used in the recently-popularized E-85 gasoline formula, currently available for use in many General Motors and Ford vehicles, among other brands.
Methanol, the other fuel that this technology can produce, currently comes from methane in natural gas and is used to create biodiesel. It also, for years, has been used as a safer alternative to gas in some series of professional auto racing.
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.
The company is currently talking with many municipalities interested in building the conversion systems, Jeff Surma, another cofounder and the CEO and president of IET, told Technology Review. The company also is talking with a “major Midwest utility” company about implementing the waste-to-biofuel technology.