Searching for the new ‘fossil fuel’

Gina Castell collects bite-size version of innovate hub research going on at Newcastle. Find out how Professor Adam Harvey searches for the new ‘fossil fuel’ of the world.

The ‘Gasification Integration’ SuperGEN project at Newcastle is a trailblazer, paving the way with its innovative methods and shaping our bioenergy future. But already confused by the title? Here’s a quick low down of what’s going on in the lab.
Biomass is organic material that can be used for energy, from wood to plants to manure, even garbage!
Integrated gasification is when biomass is turned into a gas. This is done inside a gasifier, and the end result is cleaned product gas. Tar is a big issue here as it contaminates the product gas. Tar needs to be removed from the gas, so it is ‘clean’ and ready to generate power, to produce chemicals, hydrogen, gasoline and ammonia. Every step of this gasification takes place inside the equipment. So for the steps we have collection (of the organic stuff), pyrolysis (a fancy word for decomposition under high temp.) and gasification.
What’s the deal with integrated biomass gasification?
It’s an important step, not only in power generation, but also in turning biomass to products. The idea is to replace what currently happens, which is a chemical process that heavily relies on fossil fuels with biomass. It tackles the shortage of energy problem, which will inevitably happen. So it’s a pretty big deal. We currently use fossil fuels but they are quickly used up, like petroleum. So it’s a question of finding an organic energy source, so people use biomass and convert it into energy. Imagine a future where fossil fuels are no longer used, we can use biomass to sustainably supply the worlds’ energy, totally eclipsing the bygone fossil fuel age.
Gasification is a sustainable way of getting our energy, because a) low energy costs means it’s a money saver, and b) less energy is wasted. So what are we waiting for?
A big challenge with this is tar removal. Tar builds up inside the equipment and gets stuck inside the pipes. This creates a sticky situation, with the gas unable to be used until the tar is removed.
What has been discovered is a unique way of loosening the tar. Normally, tar is dealt with by using high heat and high pressure. However, the project has found that low energy plasma at room temp and atmospheric pressure does the trick. (Thunder is an example of plasma on Earth). The clean gas can then be used to make gasoline and generate power.
Right now, the knowledge is still new. But if we can industrialise this technology we can use it globally, not just in the UK. Some Asian countries already use biomass for heating, and it’s only a matter of time before biogas catches on all over the world, becoming the key sustainable energy source.
The message here is move over fossil fuels! There’s a new biogas sheriff in town.
By Gina Castellheim

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