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Where There Is Waste, There Is Energy—and Opportunity

December 2015
Where There Is Waste, There Is Energy—and Opportunity
Small, tailored mini-refineries located where waste is produced—such as farms and ranches, waste water treatment plants, food processing centers, and similar locations—could convert much of the nation's abandoned carbon into useful energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In this case, bigger is not better, which presents challenges in terms of both engineering and catalysis.

Today's low energy prices feed both a false sense of security about U.S. energy availability and a continued appetite for carbon-based fuel and chemical sources. But as history shows, energy prices and oil imports will rise again, swinging the pendulum back toward concerns over energy security and domestic fuel alternatives.

At the same time, the U.S. has an inventory of largely abandoned carbon with an aggregate energy content equivalent to the amount of petroleum we import. These resources, which include low-energy-density wet waste and sludge; forest residue; agricultural, industrial and municipal waste; COX; and flare gas—are geographically dispersed and chemically diverse.

Small, tailored mini-refineries could take advantage of these abandoned resources, create local jobs, significantly change how we use carbon, and reduce environmental impacts. The small scale enables communities to couple low-value carbon resources with seasonal energy demands and other constraints with no offsite shipping of waste. Converting these unused resources may produce kerosene or chemical feed precursors depending on local communities' needs.

Scaling—aye, there’s the rub

With support from the Department of Energy, PNNL has partnered with industry to make significant advances in biomass processing research and development for three classes of stranded carbon:

  • Gas – working with LanzaTech to convert carbon monoxide offgas from steel mill plants to make jet fuel
  • Wet – working with Genifuel and the Water Energy Research Foundation on hydrothermal liquefaction to convert wet sludges—food waste, water treatment sludge, algae—into biocrude oil using a simple reactor configuration that Genifuel is moving to pilot scale
  • Dry – working with DOE and Battelle to combine pyrolysis and hydrotreating to produce high-quality gasoline and improve reactor operability by a factor of 60, from 25 to 1500 hours.

To realize these processing advances at small scales but with high production, two primary challenges must be overcome: 1) the limitations of current catalyst options that can break the “power law” associated with scaling, and 2) engineering for modularization and replication.

Read the full article on the Institute for Integrated Catalysis website.

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