The age of biofuel: pyrolysis and gasification

Written by: Giles Kirkland | Published:

The process of creating synthetic fuel requires thorough education and creativity in the face of supposedly readily-available natural fuel.

Even so, the majority of industrialised processes that occur on a daily basis internationally rely on non-renewable resources.

As such, the pursuit of alternative fuels and the processes by which those fuels can be made remains essential, even though these processes may have flaws of their own. Consider, for example, pyrolysis and gasification and the benefits – as well as the detrimental effects – of the syngases that they can produce.

Pyrolysis and gasification: an exploration

Pyrolysis is the process through which waste such as plastic is heated in order to produce both the burnt char and gas, of which the gas can be used in order to create electricity or fuel.

This process, by producing a char, is not a zero waste alternative like other thermal technologies, but it still serves as a tool that technologically-driven industries can make use of in order to reduce their reliance on natural gas.

Gasification refers to the process through which waste such as plastic is heated in order to produce a gas referred to as a syngas. That syngas, in turn, is then used as a fuel to produce electricity or as a preliminary stage for other types of biofuels.

Note that there is no need nor benefit to the presence of a chair through gasification, and that pyrolysis, in comparison, is not a net zero process in terms of reducing the amount of waste in a particular environment.

The practice of gasification, according to Technavio representatives, is already being used by technological giants such as GE, Royal Dutch Shell, and Siemens Energy. It is considered one of the cleanest sources of energy for not only electricity but as a broader substitute for natural gas.

Similarities

Both of these processes serve as positive alternatives to the standard process of harnessing natural gas, as the materials gasification and pyrolysis use are not necessarily finite.

Human waste in the form of plastics as well as other disposables is likely to be present so long as the human race itself is. Furthermore, the planet’s capacity for human waste has reached a point where, as many may note, floating islands of plastic waste exist in the midst of the Pacific, out of sight and out of mind for many, but an ever-present threat to the ecosystem that they violate.

Differences

That said, there are notable differences between pyrolysis and gasification. Gasification, for example, does not use flame in order to transform waste products into fuel, pyrolysis.

Instead, gasification sees waste products being heated through exposure to air in order for said materials to be converted. This difference is particularly notable when considering the amount of additional waste that each process produces – gasification appears to be a net zero process whereas pyrolysis is more complex.

Pyrolysis leaves behind additional waste in the form of char, making it the less cyclical of the two processes in terms of waste removal, and the heat from the fire this process uses in order to convert its waste produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide.

Both processes are currently in use, although less prominently than the traditional use of natural gases and non-renewable resources. They are currently serving as net positive processes when it comes to the removal of plastics from the natural environment and replacement of unsustainable fuels with biofuels.

The benefits

Because gas and fuel are essential parts of the plastic-making process, it seems appropriate that said process should establish a feedback loop by turning its products back into the elements that made it.

The renewability of this process is one of the many benefits of plastic’s use as a biofuel. This has nothing to say regarding the sheer availability of plastic at this point in time.

Plastics have been been recycled since the 1970s and the popularity and benefits of recycling are notably class-oriented. While middle to upper-class individuals can easily access recycling services, the growing economic division in the US alone sees impoverished populations, ranging from generationally-impoverished families to the odd graduate student. Those, unfortunately, are usually unable to access recycling services or facilities.

As such, turning improperly-disposed of plastics into biofuels not only expands the currently operating recycling facilities. The process could remove a sizeable chunk of plastic waste from landfills and from the natural environment.

Beyond this, the syngas produced through pyrolysis and gasification can significantly increase the sustainability of vehicles. When converted to ethanol and used as fuel for cars, it is said to make a variety of cars energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Considering the overwhelming amount of emissions the automotive and transportation industries generate, this could be a very promising perspective.

The detriments

A number of resistant parties note some of the detrimental effects of using plastics as a biofuel, however, and make a point to have their voices heard in the environmental conversation.

Some of these concerned individuals, whose arguments were addressed by The Guardian touch on one of the downsides of pyrolysis in particular: the process’s production of additional carbon dioxide. This particularly unwanted byproduct may have negative impact on national and international carbon emissions.

It is also concerning that the work that gasification and pyrolysis can do might be too limited. For example, according to the Australian 2016 National Waste Report, the Department of the Environment and Energy did not see the gasification and pyrolysis processes as far-reaching enough in their environmentally-positive capabilities to be worth pursuing, let alone funding.

It can be easy to let these detrimental effects overwhelm the positive elements of biofuel production. The potential of biofuelsand their impact on not only the production of plastics but on the disposal of said materials remains.

Should the practices of pyrolysis and gasification ever be adopted into the production methods of technological industry, the trouble of plastic over-saturation that internationally puts the environment at risk could find better management, if not a long-term solution.

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