US Army Testing Trash-To-Ethanol Technology’s Efficiency

by | Aug 22, 2013

FastOx Pathfinder Sierra Energy has come up with what could be a very efficient, large scale method of converting all kinds of trash to gas, unlike current gasification technologies that require large amounts of energy and capital investment, reports the New York Times. The first customer to test the FastOx Pathfinder system, as it’s called, will be the US Army.

The Department of Defense paid $3 million for the technology and the California Energy Commission gave $5 million to Sierra Energy to cover costs that the Pentagon did not cover.

Sierra Energy’s gasification system uses a shower stall-sized gasifier that is basically a modified blast furnace, which heats waste inside to very high heat without combustion. What results from it is synthetic gas, which can be made into ethanol or diesel fuel.

The Times reports that two other companies — Ineos Bio and Kior — have developed technology to convert gasified wood waste into ethanol, while Sierra says it can convert any waste, not just wood, into gas that can be transformed into biofuel. If this can be efficiently scaled up, it would provide a viable alternative to corn- and soybean-based ethanol, which face the food-versus-fuel dilemma.

While there is plenty of interest in successful trash-to-gas technologies that are economical, efficient and non-polluting, the Times reports that most potential customers did not want to be the guinea pig, instead preferring to wait until it was proven.

But the Pentagon, as the single largest consumer of fuel at $15 billion a year, went ahead with being the first to test Sierra’s system, in the hopes that it could lower its dependence abroad on oil and on the grid back home. In the battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan, transporting fuel to remote and forward operating bases can drive the cost of a gallon up to $50. These fuel runs through enemy lines also lead to half of all casualties of service personnel protecting convoys between 2003 and 2007, according to Army reports.

The Army has been burning its trash in its bases in theater and the foul smell has added to the negative feelings locals have for US forces, reports the Times — so if the FastOx Pathfinder system works well, it would negate the need for burn pits.

The search for economical and effective waste-to-energy technology is not limited to the US. In the UK, the Energy Technologies Institute announced in May that it has chosen three companies to compete in designing the most commercially viable, energy-from-waste gasification plant possible. Advanced Plasma Power, Broadcrown and Royal Dahlman have each been commissioned to design and develop a plant to demonstrate an integrated system that would be commercial at between 5 and 20 MW.

 Image credit: FastOx Pathfinder from Sierra Energy

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