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Waste to energy: National Labs look to trash for clean energyWaste to energy: National Labs look to trash for clean energy

Collaboration to find new catalytic technologies that can efficiently produce biofuels from waste streams, like trash, ag and food wastes.

April 1, 2016

4 Min Read
Waste to energy: National Labs look to trash for clean energy

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. produced 254 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2013, and although 87 million tons of that material was diverted from landfills through recycling and composting, the goal is to do better.

What if landfills could become local sources of clean energy production or if all waste streams, including those from agricultural, livestock and food production, could essentially become fuel refineries at a local level?

It’s a question being asked by a collaboration of National Laboratory researchers who want to create energy conversion technologies designed to mine the carbon out of waste processes that traditionally have been an environmental burden to the planet and a disposal headache for people.

"The idea of using waste as energy source really isn’t new," Cynthia Jenks, assistant director of scientific planning and division director for chemical and biological sciences for the Ames Laboratory, said. “For example, some municipal and regional utilities already burn landfill waste as a source for electrical power, but we think there are better, cleaner and more efficient ways to get at that carbon and use the potential energy from it.”

A new concept came out of the Big Ideas Summit, held by the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Laboratories in 2015. The effort, being co-led by the Ames Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is a collaboration of 12 national laboratories that are looking to find new catalytic technologies that can efficiently produce biofuels from waste streams.

The goals are specific: Make the technology as simple as possible yet adaptable to diverse waste streams; locate it right at the waste stream source — whether a landfill, livestock farm or commercial facility — and make it easy and economical to produce and deliver through the use of modular manufacturing.

“The idea brings together a lot of overlapping interests: chemical research, applied engineering, modular manufacturing, waste management, agriculture, industry and energy sector investors. It’s a complex idea with a lot of moving parts but one that we think will get us a lot closer to accessing the potential energy in these underused resources and a lot closer to the nation’s sustainable energy production goals,” Jenks said.

To meet the goal, the participating National Laboratories will pool their skills in materials and chemical sciences, high-performance computing, engineering and applied technology. The Ames Laboratory will lend the project expertise in catalysis through its Chemical & Biological Sciences Division. Scientists Igor Slowing and Aaron Sadow have already done extensive work in creating catalysts that are able to convert carbons by placing catalytic agents on high-surface area nanomaterials. They want to develop processes that enable the controlled decomposition of waste polymers into useful hydrocarbons.

“A large amount of the waste that goes into landfills is polymers — plastics. These are very carbon-rich, very processed materials, and if we were to be able to convert that waste into new, useful compounds or energy, that would make much better use of them. Right now, we’re wasting all that carbon; it’s just sitting there in the trash,” Sadow said.

Sadow and Slowing will also apply similar techniques to the conversion of wet sludge and agricultural wastes.

Sadow said the scientific challenges are complex, with a need for highly efficient chemical reactions, operating at low temperatures and low pressure and also capable of adapting to changes in the raw materials feeding them.

“Any waste stream is very mixed, and its composition varies over time,” Sadow explained. “We can physically sort and then convert, but then there’s that separation step. We don’t really know how to chemically convert mixtures in general. That is a really big, interesting, fundamental challenge that research hasn’t yet tackled, and that’s exciting to contemplate.”

While the group estimates that these localized biorefineries would produce small quantities of biofuels — the equivalent of an average of 125 barrels of oil per day — the collective impact could be staggering. Transforming the available national waste streams into fuels and other useful chemical products could translate into the equivalent of 2.7 billion barrels of oil per year, or 40% of the nation’s annual crude oil use.

“That’s really the ‘big idea,’” Jenks said. “Where there is waste, there is energy. We believe that the collective expertise of the national labs, including the chemical research strengths of Ames Laboratory, puts that big idea within reach.”

The Ames Laboratory is a government-owned, contractor-operated national laboratory of DOE that is operated by and located on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

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