Officials at the University of California, Riverside Bourns College of Engineering will unveil a new energy-production system on Tuesday that has the ability to convert biomass waste into energy through a process called steam hydrogasification. It also produces negligible emissions.
Using the system, most materials made of carbon -- like agricultural and municipal solid waste -- can be turned into methane, which can then be converted into liquid fuel or electricity. The California Energy Commission estimates that the state produces 47 million tons of biomass waste annually.
“This is California technology solving a California problem to eliminate California waste,” said Joe Norbeck, a professor emeritus at the school and one of the inventors of the technology.
The process differs from traditional dry gasification in that it allows wet materials to be processed without a drying step. Analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory also shows that the process is 12 percent more efficient than dry methods.
It also means that waste from agricultural and municipal sources, yard trimmings and sewage sludge could all be used as fodder for energy. Norbeck said that one ton of biomass can be converted to the equivalent of approximately one barrel of oil.
The system that will debut on Tuesday is only able to handle up to 10 pounds of biomass per hour. It's the first of its kind and meant to serve as a prototype for larger systems that could be situated at places where waste is produced.
Norbeck said ongoing research will continue to make the technology more cost effective. University officials said they expect that California’s first commercial-scale system to be built within three years.
Carbon-based materials naturally produce methane as they decompose, and many landfills have systems in place to collect the gas. Norbeck said that steam hydrogasification greatly accelerates the process.
“Natural gas production, if you do it in a landfill, takes a very long time. Takes months, years. Ours, you can do it in minutes,” Norbeck said.