09/14/2012 09:08

Technology does not stand still. Note the new applications for phones and computers. Technology gave us gasification, invented in the early-1800s. Gasification was first used to produce “town gas” for light and heat. And –until development of natural gas supplies and transmission lines in the 1940s and 1950s –virtually all gas for fuel and light was manufactured from the gasification of coal.

            In the last twenty years technology has developed the process beyond “town gas”. Gasification has become an environmentally friendly way to use coal and other carbon-based materials (refinery by-products, biomass, or trash) to supply energy without burning the material. Gasification is a chemical process that combines carbon-based materials with air or oxygen breaking them down into molecules and removing impurities and pollutants including excess carbon dioxide. What’s left is a clean “synthesis gas” (syngas) that can be used for: steam, power, transportation fuels, fertilizers, chemicals, substitute for natural gas, consumer products, and hydrogen for oil refining. Chemically syngas is carbon monoxide and hydrogen and can be burned cleanly.

            Current technologies have allowed gasification processes to be integrated with the production of electricity. The gas is converted into electricity by using the gas in a combustion engine to produce steam to turn turbines – a process that produces much less pollution than burning coal. Carbon dioxide can be pulled out of the gas, captured, and either stored underground or used in ammonia or methanol production. When sequestered, or stored, carbon dioxide can be piped to partially depleted oil fields where it is used to enhance oil recovery capabilities. Doing this prolongs the life of the oil field and allows more oil to be recovered than by drilling alone.

            Although the electric power industry has recently become interested in gasification, the chemical, refining and fertilizer industries have been using the process for decades. That's because the major components of syngas -- hydrogen and carbon monoxide -- are the basic building blocks of several other products. Some of the most important products derived from syngas include methanol, nitrogen-based fertilizers and hydrogen for oil refining and transportation fuels. Even slag, a glasslike byproduct of the gasification process, can be used in roofing materials or as a roadbed material.

            The Great Plains Synfuels Plant, built in response to the 1970s fuel crisis, today sells more than 54 billion standard cubic feet of syngas annually. Located near Beulah, North Dakota, it is fueled by domestic lignite reserves in western North Dakota. Carbon dioxide from this plant is captured, moved by pipeline, and injected into depleted oil fields to recover more oil.

            Gasification appears to be an environmentally safe way to use the world’s supply of coal, a nonrenewable fossil fuel, until we can develop alternative renewable sources to supply world energy needs.


            Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 09/12/12 (for publication on 09/15/12 in the Journal- Standard, Freeport, Illinois) Della can be reached at