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Two (2) New Methods Of Creating Clean Energy From Biomass Waste And Methane

Landfills are most often associated with their unbearable stink, but a new procedure could transform the offending gases into clean electricity by way of fuel cells. In related news, a team of researchers have developed a method for extracting gas from waste biomass, adding yet another level of use to what is fast becoming one of the hottest energy industries in the world.

Methane to Hydrogen

In a paper to be presented at the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, the Brazil-based research team has announced a new method of extracting hydrogen from methane. Hydrogen is a paradigm of clean fuel. When run through a specialized fuel cell, hydrogen transforms into electricity, and the only waste product is water vapor.

Led by Fabio B. Noronha, PhD, of the National Institute of Technology in Rio de Janeiro, the researchers sought to solve a basic chemistry equation that had previously proven challenging to accomplish. On paper, it is possible to balance an equation such that methane and carbon dioxide can be turned into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Without the proper catalyst, the process takes a prohibitively long amount of time. Unfortunately, carbon formed in the procedure binds onto the catalyst, making it ineffective.

As a work-around, Noronha and his team developed a self-cleaning catalyst using perovskite oxide supported on ceria, a ceramic component. Based on existing automotive technology for controlling emissions, this custom-made catalyst material is able to purge carbon from the system as soon as it is formed.

At the moment, the Brazilian scientists are conducting lab tests on the catalyst, but they believe that a new, highly stable version of the perovskite and ceria catalyst will soon be ready for commercialization and mass production. The next phase of testing, barring any unexpected surprises, will take place in a local landfill.

Landfills provide the ideal environment for testing the new technique since they are rich sources of free methane gas. If the method of hydrogen production is successful, then it may pave the way for most extensive use of hydrogen fuel cells, which are a promising method of clean energy production.

Biomass Waste to Gas

A team of researchers from Universiti Teknologi MARA has also taken steps toward transforming otherwise useless waste materials into useful fuels. As more countries move away from fossil fuels, biomass based fuels are becoming increasingly popular. One of the more promising attributes of biomass is that it can be produced nearly anywhere. In the United States, for instance, corn has proven an effective base crop for creating ethanol. Elsewhere in the world, researchers have experimented with maple, bamboo and even municipal solid wastes. While biofuels are a viable alternative to fossil fuels, they still produce a massive amount of organic waste.

The scientists from UiTM saw potential in the waste left behind by biofuel production, and sought to make something of it. Led by Mohamad Asadullah, PhD, the team focused their sights on oil palm biomass, which is a common crop in Asian countries for creating biofuel. By using gasification, the scientists postulated, they could extract every ounce of energy potential from the waste left over from turning oil palm into biofuel.

However, they were faced with a major problem: most common gasification processes yield gases with high concentrations of impurities like tar, dust and acidic gases, which would render any product nearly useless. These materials often contain these impurities because the process of gasification requires the use of extremely hot liquids, such as tar or molten metal, which can add unwanted components to the resultant gas.

Asadullah and his team have purportedly devised a method of gasification that removes these unwanted impurities from the final product. Although the press release from Asia Research News is unfortunately vague regarding the methods by which Asadullah has accomplished this feat, the possibility of turning waste biomass into high quality gas is promising. Such gas could be used in various applications from internal combustion engines to fuel cell power generation.

Geographically Non-Specific

Although fossil fuels are still the most widely used type of fuel, the fact that researchers are actively pursuing alternatives is nothing if not positive. More importantly, none of these alternative fuels are restricted to one geographical point of origin. Every country in the world has landfills, so everyone has equal access to methane. Similarly, just about any agricultural region can grow an array of biofuel crops, making such a method of energy production equally viable. As such, it is noteworthy that the gasification methods developed by Asadullah and his team is equally applicable to just about any other form of biomass as it is to oil palm. Indeed, it is possible that even municipal solid waste, which is largely biomass, could be gasified, reducing the amount of trash that is stored in landfills while creating useful gases.