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Barry Stevens

Barry Stevens

Dr. Barry Stevens has over 25 years of proven international experience building technology-driven enterprises and bringing superior products and services to market ahead of the…

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The Difficult Chemical Processes Involved in Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-Energy is a multifaceted concept; it means different things to different people, it is underestimated in complexity and questionable in terms of profitability and carbon neutrality.  Waste can be solid or liquid; gaseous waste products are referred to as emissions. Energy can be a stream of electrons injected into the grid as electricity or combustible fuel commodities such as ethanol or synthetic fuels. The emissions and the restriction thereof, from converting solid waste into energy have a significant impact on the way energy is generated. This discussion will be restricted to “organic” solid wastes.

The conversion of organic solid waste into energy is not a new technology. “In 1885, the U.S. Army built the nation’s first garbage incinerator on Governor’s Island in New York City harbour.”

The solid waste-to-energy industry starts with disposable goods from every sector in the economy. Each sector generates different kinds of waste each varying in composition (see following solid waste chart and “What is Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)?”). The makeup of the waste is further influenced by lot, location and time of year. The only norm in this business is that there is no norm.

Waste Types and Strategies for Conversion into Energy
Source: Environmental Strategies for Cities, MIT

Traditionally, energy was derived from waste by incineration. Heat generated from the combustion process was harvested and converted into electricity. The heat boils water that in turn powers steam generators to produce electric energy.

Today, organic wastes can be converted into fuel by two different strategies- thermal and non-thermal.  Thermal technologies include gasification, thermal de-polymerization, pyrolysis, and plasma arc gasification. One technology that is pushing its way towards commercialization combines pyrolysis with Fisher-Tropsch (“FT”) synthesis. The Pyrolytic/FT pathway begins with the pretreatment (sorting, crushing, and drying) of the solid waste feedstock, which is then moved to a slow pyrolysis treatment at a high temperature of 900°C (the treatment involves a gasification process in the absence of oxygen) to generate syngas (CO and H2), which is subsequently cleaned and refined into liquid fuel by a FT process.  This above description is a much simplified version excluding the complexity of the actual process and a number of the process steps, variables and parameters. FT is a sophisticated catalytic technology patented by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany in the 1920s.

Non-thermal technologies or biological processes used to generate fuels include anaerobic digestion, fermentation production, and mechanical biological treatment. Like the Pyrolytic/FT pathway, any generalized description may not be representative of other non-thermal conversion processes. Anaerobic digestion process utilizes microorganisms to break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, begins with a pre-treatment to optimize the amount of digestible material and moisture content as well as to remove harmful contaminants from the organic feedstock, which is then “digested by bacterial hydrolysis to produce insoluble organic polymers such as carbohydrates. The carbohydrates are then made available to acidogenic bacteria that convert the sugars and amino acids into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and organic acids. The organic acids are subsequently converted by acetogenic bacteria into acetic acid, along with additional ammonia, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. Finally, methanogens convert these products to methane (natural gas), carbon dioxide and trace amounts of contaminant gases such as hydrogen sulphide. The methane can be burned to produce both heat and electricity or used as a fuel after “scrubbing to remove the sulphides.”

The one commonality between incineration, FT and biologic conversion of waste-to energy is the use of solid waste as a feedstock. All wastes are not created equally and therefore cannot be uniformly applied to generate energy be it electricity or fuel. This is the primary risk in the energy-from-waste industry. The type and kind of energy generated depends on what actually constitutes the solid waste. Sorted material with all plastics, glass and metal removed and no construction debris poses fewer issues.  If construction debris is included, we may have pressure treated lumber, which has the potential to create some aldehydes in the flue gas such as formaldehyde.  There will also be some heavy metals such as cadmium or chromium.  Plastics can produce more monoxide, but can also increase tar formation, any of which can inhibit the performance of or poison the FT catalyst. Also the composition of the syngas is critical to the effectiveness and efficiency of the process.  In the aforementioned biological process, the feedstock must contain mostly digestible or fermentable material, the right moisture content and must be free of contaminants.

Outlining the right feedstock composition for each of these processes is much simpler than obtaining it. From the complex and unpredictable nature of solid waste and testing and sampling protocols to determining the syngas or biogas composition from each feedstock and tying that to determine the quality and cost of the product (electricity or fuel), it is far from certain what you get, even under controlled conditions. At the end of the day, the estimated capital cost to build, operate and maintain a waste-to-energy processing plant is highly questionable.

Finally, the energy balance of a waste-to energy plant is of utmost importance for the production of energy-from-waste. The sample calculation given below is a gross first-order approximation of the amount of energy consumed to produce a given amount of energy. The values used here were estimates based on a theoretical Pyrolytic / FT plant that converts municipal solid waste into fuel grade diesel; these values were averages obtained from field research. Parameters and assumptions are given in the notes below the calculations.

Significantly more sophisticated calculations can be found in Stevens Institute of Technology’s “BASF Catalyst and Golden Biomass Fuels Corporation report on their investigation of energy balance, in broad outline, for the production of a high-quality synthetic diesel from residual crop biomass via a Fischer-Tropsch route. Their calculations took into consideration: • harvesting surplus biomass (such as crop residue); • locally pyrolyzing the biomass into pyrolysis oil, char, and un-condensable gas; • transporting the PO to a remote central processing facility; • converting the PO at this facility by auto thermal reforming into synthesis gas (CO and H2); and • Fischer–Tropsch (FT) synthesis of the syngas into diesel fuel.”


In closing, there is no question that converting waste-to-energy is a necessary sustainable and renewable enterprise if nothing more than to remove recyclables and to allow landfills to remain open due to lower volumes of waste. However, it is not a business to be taken lightly. Processes are new, advanced and in many cases proprietary. Translating patents to operations is far from trivial. The chemistry, thermodynamics and equipment design are complex. Operating systems maybe beyond R&D and the pilot stage but questionable as a cost-effective commercial plant. Instant mavens, who see gold in that garbage, beware. Better to use the knowledge of those who have scar tissue to show in this business.

By. Dr. Barry Stevens

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