Turning Trash Into Gas

30 Mar

People have been trying for decades to eliminate landfills and fight climate change by vaporizing garbage—with disappointing results. But that could be changing

TAKEPART FEATURESTurning Trash Into Gas May Finally Be a Thing People have been trying for decades to eliminate landfills and fight climate change by vaporizing garbage—with disappointing results. But that could be changing. Read More →    share this story     At WasteExpo 2016, the annual conference of the National Waste & Recycling Association, some 600 exhibits fill three cavernous floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Gleaming garbage trucks are on display, along with scrap metal shredders, conveyor belt systems, and pumps for spritzing deodorizer onto fetid landfills. Video screens show trash being sorted or baled, compacted or pulverized, by machines that resemble oversize Tonka toys.

The booth operated by a company called Sierra Energy trumpetsa gadget known as the FastOx gasifier, whose effect on refuse is as transformative as the banner implies. “We think of it as molecular recycling,” says CEO Mike Hart, a trim, balding 54-year-old with a jazzman’s goatee and a calmly impassioned manner. The FastOx turns anything containing carbon—from orange peels to old tires to used syringes—into a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This can be burned to generate electricity or reformulated into biofuels or industrial chemicals. The hydrogen content can be used to power emission-free fuel-cell vehicles or small power plants.

Proponents say waste gasification could help transform the fight against climate change—for one, by reducing reliance on landfills, which are among the leading human-made sources of methane, a greenhouse gas. Gasification also could reduce consumption of fossil fuels. The waste-derived gas comes from previously used materials that would otherwise emit greenhouse gases through decay, rather than from hydrocarbons extracted solely for the purpose of burning. When it and its byproducts are converted into energy, they release less CO2 than coal or petroleum.

The EPA calculates that gasifying 100 tons of waste a day instead of landfilling it could translate to a reduction of up to 66,000 tons of CO2 a year—the equivalent of taking 14,000 cars off the road by using the trash of a medium-size suburb. “I’m bullish on this technology,” says Chip Comins, chairman and CEO of the nonprofit American Renewable Energy Institute, which promotes the use of sustainable power sources. “I have high hopes that its time has come.”

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