Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fuel for the Future Produced from Organic Waste

The possibility of environmental crisis looms ahead of us; no one knows if this prospect is near or far however, we do know that many of our energy sources are being depleted. Prices of petroleum are on the rise and the international community has come to rely on the monopoly of few oil producing countries. The number of vehicles using petroleum fuels are increasing worldwide, but sooner than later, our fossil fuel supply will run empty. The daily activities of our world depend on fuel and many industrial sectors will suffer badly if a solution is not found soon. As a result, numerous research programs have focused on developing renewable energy sources which are eco-friendly and can be sustainably developed. A study by Professor Ayhan Demirbas of Sila Science in Trabzon, Turkey, presents the idea of producing biomethanol from organic waste materials. His study was published in Energy Sources, Part A, an internationally established, peer reviewed journal encompassing the disciplines of science and technology.

Biomass derived methanol, also known as biomethanol, has gained increased attention as an alternative fuel. The process is more advantageous than using fossil fuels because of the environmental benefits. Demirbas’ states that methanol is currently made from natural gas but it can also be produced from biomass through the process of partial oxidation reactions. He explains that there are two types of biomass supplies: organic municipal wastes and dedicated energy farms. A synthesis gas is initially produced by subjecting the organic material to very high temperatures resulting in biomass gasification. The synthesis gas, consisting of essentially carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is modified by a catalyst under high pressure and temperature to produce methanol. If sufficient hydrogen is added during this process the amount of methanol produced from carbon matter can be maximized. However, Demirbas’ indicates that at the moment methanol production is not economically feasible because it cannot compete with the inexpensive sources of natural gas. We must remain optimistic on the basis that technologies are being developed which may eventually result in the commercial potential of renewable methanol. Much of the technology needed is already in place; only efficiency improvements and certain upgrades are needed to give methanol an economic chance. It is important that the prices in production are reduced in order to make biomethanol accessible and affordable to society. With the increasing green movement, it is likely that biomethanol will be very popular among the public.

Biomethanol is already used as the base product in biodiesel made from vegetable oils. Demirbas’ research has shown that biomethanol can also be used as a potential replacement for conventional motor fuels. A bonus of this capability is that methanol can be mixed with conventional fuel or used as pure fuel without the need to modify engines. In addition, methanol can be used as a base fuel for hybrid vehicles. Demirbas’ reminds us that methanol was used in the early part of the century to power vehicles before new methods were developed to locate and extract oil and before inexpensive gasoline was introduced. Through World War II, Germany commonly used synthetically produced methanol as motor fuel. During the oil crises of the 1970s methanol use received attention due to its availability and low cost. Imminent fuel shortages may mean people are once again going to have to look to methanol as a large volume motor fuel substitute.

Biomass has many appealing qualities as a raw material. It is a renewable resource which can be maintained in the future. If fossil fuel prices continue to rise, then methanol has the potential for economic success. In addition, methanol has no net release of carbon dioxide and very low sulphur content. The carbon in biomethanol comes from carbon that was removed from the atmosphere in growing the organic materials used to produce the alcohol; therefore, the carbon is only being re-released resulting in low total emissions.

In order to address energy security and environmental concerns, biofuels need to be considered as applicable by both developing and industrialized countries. Fortunately, in developed countries there is already a growing trend toward establishling alternative, renewable energy sources. Soon bioenergy may become economically competitive with fossil fuels. Our petroleum shortage has created a testing ground for the development of renewable energy. The world patiently waits for a solution to the problem humans are to blame for. It seems more and more likely that biomethanol production from biomass will have a promising future.

Demirbas, A. (2008). Biomethanol Production from Organic Waste Materials. Energy Sources Part A: Recovery, Utilization & Environmental Effects, 30(6), 565-572. doi:10.1080/15567030600817167.

Elisha Persaud
Student # 0713364

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