Readers may be aware that many petrochemicals are made from a widely used precursor or feedstock known as “syngas,” or synthesis gas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen). This versatile gas can be made into a large variety of hydrocarbon monomers (and plastic and polymers) depending on conditions and catalysts.
Syngas need not be made only from petroleum. It can be made from coal and petroleum coke residues … However synthesis gas also can be made from waste (agricultural, municipal and sanitary).
Municipal waste is composed (somewhat variably) of 70 percent carbohydrate, 10 percent plastic and 20 percent incombustibles. Agricultural waste and sewage is mainly cellulose and lignin. Industrial waste is about 55 percent cellulose (and other vegetable waste) and 5 percent manmade polymers.
I would like to suggest that by the steam reforming and partial combustion of organic waste, the current relentless increase in CO2 emissions from the United States (and the rest of the planet) may be partially arrested – if we make all of our petroleum fuel products and electricity from waste-derived syngas ...
The amount of waste generated in the United States is very large. If all the solid waste (industrial, municipal and agricultural – but excluding sewage) were placed into steam reforming devices linked to a Fischer-Tropsch or related device, the nation’s total oil supply could be secured, as well as the nation’s electricity.
Furthermore, since agricultural waste is largely confined to rural areas and municipal and industrial waste is increasingly dumped far outside its city of origin, the manufacture of diesel and other liquid fuels could occur away from the coast in rural areas (safe from hurricanes) – where local employment would be greatly enhanced.
If all fuel could be generated at home from the nation’s waste alone, then fears concerning oil supply interruptions from the Middle East would become groundless.
Existing oil exploration and production would not be affected for a long time, as increasing world demand would assure continued profits.
However, if eventually all petroleum used as fuel was derived from waste; and all fossil fuel was secured as plastic, paints, lube oil and asphalt (particularly plastic wood substitutes used in the construction industry) then all carbon dioxide emissions of the United States would be substantially curtailed (without developing much in the way of new technology).
(This is because the waste-derived carbon pool tapped as a fuel source decomposes naturally, anyway, to CO2 and CH4, where bacteria are the energy beneficiaries. Methane is a particularly potent green house gas – about 23 times greater than CO2).
Most power stations use oil or coal. If, instead of using the clean coal gasification process recommended by the government, we were to apply the same technology to our industrial or other waste, then there would be No Net Gain in CO2 emissions from the power station. Similarly concrete manufacturing (lime kilns) and glass manufacturing could all be fired using waste-derived syngas fuel.
The cost of producing a barrel of waste-derived synfuel should be comparable to synfuel derived from tar sands, residual fuel oil or coal (about $10 a barrel) – but only after equipment depreciation costs. For municipal waste, additional revenue from the "tipping fee" of $35-$55 per ton (yielding about 2.5 theoretical barrels of diesel) would greatly cut costs.
The development of waste-derived diesel (and natural gas) sources could provide a basis for CO2 emission credits. Oil, coal and gas companies could initially purchase CO2 credits from waste management companies. Hence a waste management company that produces synthetic oil would sell not only the diesel oil or sewage-derived natural gas, but also equivalent emission credits to the oil industry.
If waste-derived synfuel credits were to be traded on a worldwide basis, the diminishing reserves of crude could be incrementally supplemented by waste-derived synfuel without increasing the total amount of atmospheric CO2.
Alternatively, an oil company could use its own refinery's waste heat (and flared gas as well as other organic wastes) to steam reform agricultural and municipal wastes. That way the oil company could collect "carbon credits" to offset against it's own "fossil fuel" carbon dioxide emissions.
However, the majority of energy to produce the reforming steam should be provided by the Fischer-Tropsch intensely exothermic reaction and the addition of small amounts of oxygen.
By emphasizing the "active loop" of the natural carbon cycle as a counterbalance to fuels derived from the fossilized carbon sinks, we may be able to lower our overall CO2 emissions.