Is Waste Gasification Finally Coming of Age?

Over recent years there has been growing interest in the use of gasification technologies to treat solid waste.

The 50 MW Teesside plant will be the first of its kind in the UK and the largest in the world

Spurred by government incentives and a stable regulatory environment, Air Products has begun construction of a 50 MW plasma gasification facility in Teesside. With the company already planning a second such plant at the site - as well as others around the country - is the waste industry entering the age of gasification?

by Ben Messenger

Over recent years there has been growing interest in the use of gasification technologies to treat solid waste. The concept is not a new one. Indeed gasification itself has been used for over 180 years, and was once in common use to provide gas for heating and lighting. However, these systems typically gasified coal or peat. Early attempts to use municipal waste as a feedstock ran into problems when scaled up unless the input was suitably homogenous. But with its lure of low emissions and a greatly reduced, environmentally sound residue, the story was never going to end there.

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Today a number of companies offer technologies which are claimed to solve many of the problems and make the large-scale gasification of mixed solid wastes an environmentally sound reality. Nor is it just the potential environmental benefits which are pushing gasification up the waste treatment agenda. While public opinion in some countries, such as Denmark, is very favourable to traditional thermal treatment facilities for waste, in others, such as the U.S. and UK, incinerator plans often face fierce opposition.

For governments and politicians then, the ability to 'sell' a project to the public as being 'not incineration' can be appealing. A perfect example of this can be seen in the request for proposals made earlier this year by New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, which specifically excludes traditional mass burn technologies. While many highly regarded figures in the industry have questioned this approach, it certainly provides a foot in the door for the gasification industry.

In the UK too, gasification is being given a leg up by government, with such facilities eligible for double support following the latest Renewables Obligation (RO) banding review (See Dr. Matthew Aylott's article on page 24 for a full explanation). Combined with the European Landfill Directive, the UK has become an attractive place to build a waste gasification facility. So much so that Allentown, Pennsylvania based gas processing technology developer, Air Products has chosen to build a 50 MW plasma gasification facility in Teesside in the North East of the country.

Thinking Big

According to Air Products, the facility - currently under construction at the New Energy and Technology Business Park, near Billingham - will be the first of its kind in the UK, and the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. As well as generating enough electricity for 50,000 homes, the plant is expected to divert up to 350,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste from landfill per year - helping to meet the UK's waste diversion targets.

The company claims that the Westinghouse advanced gasification technology provided by AlterNRG offers a more efficient, cleaner conversion of waste into power than traditional waste to energy technologies and has the potential to generate a wider range of useful products, including heat, hydrogen, chemicals and fuels.

The facility will process residual commercial, industrial and municipal waste, which will be continuously fed into a gasifier that is also supplied with oxygen and nitrogen via an air separation unit. The waste is pre-shredded to avoid blockages. Once in the gasifier the waste is thermally treated by the system's plasma torches to generate a synthetic gas (syngas) which is then put through a gas cleanup stage. The end product is a clean syngas consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen which is used to fuel a Solar Turbines gas turbine driven generator.

Longer term, the company says that the facility has the potential to generate renewable hydrogen which could be deployed for commercial use, such as fuelling public transport.

"One of the nice things about these advanced gasification technologies is that they provide a really neat link back into the industrial gases sector that you could potentially use as a resource for renewable hydrogen in the future," explains Lisa Jordan, bio-energy Europe business manager at Air Products.

One of the key advantages offered by plasma gasification is its ability to produce a range of products including renewable hydrogen Credit: Alter NRG

"Having that clean syngas is the key to unlocking all those future end products, and that's where for us this is exciting, because it ties back into our hydrogen business in the future if we need a source of renewable hydrogen, whether that's for industrial or for vehicle fuelling applications. But right now the way these things get built is through power generation because that's where the need is," she adds.

Public Opinion and Planning

When it comes to waste projects most developers will tell you that public support is almost always difficult to come by in the UK. And that is particularly true of large scale waste to energy projects. Yet according to Jordan, Air Products' Teesside facility has not only received cross party political backing, but has also been given the thumbs up by the public.

"We've had an unprecedented level of support from the public on Teesside and we've had a fantastically good experience with the planning system. We didn't have a single objection to our planning application," she says.

The Teesside facility will utilise Alter NRG plasma gasification technology
Credit: Alter NRG

As part of the planning process, the company conducted a series of technical and environmental studies, consulted local and national organisations about the project and shared its plans with local residents and businesses. In October 2010 it held public exhibitions in Stockton and Port Clarence and distributed leaflets to more than 7500 households in the area.

The public backing for the project is also partly explained by its location in a highly industrial area, which has been designated for new energy technologies. Another benefit of the chosen site is that it's close to Teesside landfill, from which it will divert waste, and has good road and electrical infrastructure. Interestingly, the landfill operator, Impetus Waste Management is also Air Products landlord and waste partner for the project, and will benefit from the extended life span of the landfill.

In August 2012 the company secured planning permission for the facility from Stockton Borough Council and received an environmental permit from the Environment Agency.

Bright Future for Advanced Gasification

According to Jordan the project fits with the country's climate and energy goals. "This was the perfect storm that brought us to the UK. In terms of the need for additional capacity in the electricity market, the targets around renewable energy production and the financial incentives which exist to support that, and the EU Landfill Directive," she explains.

The government then seems to be firmly behind the use of gasification to treat waste, and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has even publically backed the technology as having a key role to play in delivering renewable energy. As such, Air Products is confident of the rapid development of additional facilities in the UK and recently unveiled plans for the first of those - a second 50 MW plant in Teesside.

According to Jordan, as with the first plant, the availability of skilled labour, industrial land, good access to electrical infrastructure and excellent road links were important factors in the decision to pursue an additional plant in Teesside. The company also has grander plans to build five or so facilities of this type in the UK.

"One project doesn't make it a business," explains Jordan. "We actually want to do more of these. The UK now has, as we see it, a very stable regulatory environment to enable us to make those future investments."

Conclusions

Air Products' 50 MW Teesside facility may be the first of its kind in the UK, and the largest of its kind in the world, but there are numerous other waste gasification projects either under construction or in planning both in the UK and around the world.

CHO Power, a subsidiary of the Europlasma Group, recently completed the development of its 12 MW plasma gasification facility in Morcenx, France and is planning four similar plants in the UK with a total output of 37.5 MW. Meanwhile, IES - a joint venture between European Metal Recycling and New Jersey based advanced gasification technology manufacturer, Chinook Sciences is developing a 40 MW gasification plant to treat shredder fluff from end-of-life vehicles in the in UK's West Midlands. Biossense, INEOS Bio and British Airways are working on gasification projects of their own.

In the U.S., Science Applications International and alternative asset manager, Carlyle Energy Mezzanine Opportunities have agreed to provide financing for construction of the $225 million Plainfield Renewable Energy project which will gasify wood waste to produce some 37.5 MW of energy. Also in the U.S. Covanta recently completed commercial demonstration testing on a gasification technology that it claims to be 'first-of-its-kind' and which will gasify unprocessed post-recycled municipal solid waste in a commercial setting (see Tom Freyberg's WTERT Conference review on page 12).

In Sri Lanka a $248 million 40 MW plasma gasification facility, which is planned to treat 1000 tonnes per day of waste, is reported to be under construction.

Around the world a great many more projects are in the pipeline. Not all will make it to fruition, but it would seem to indicate that waste gasification is a technology which may just be coming of age.

Ben Messenger is the managing editor of WMW magazine
e-mail: benm@pennwell.com