Chemical engineering alumni have unveiled the prototype of a modular unit that can convert one ton of agricultural waste into a barrel of diesel and 0.5 megawatt hours of electricity a day.
The researchers, in partnership with the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, exhibited the unit at the 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 17) that took place in Durban from 28 November - 9 December 2011.
The ‘BeauTiFuel project’, presented by scientists from the Centre of Material and Process Synthesis (COMPS) in the Wits School of Chemical Engineering exhibited the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis-based mobile conversion technology modular unit. The unit converts biomass to electricity and crude synthetic fuel.
The process allows for the conversion of solid material with a carbon content by using plasma gasification (supplied by Necsa) and FT synthesis (supplied by Wits). This has lower carbon emissions than other processing technologies and produces about 1bl/d of crude synthetic fuel and 0.5 MW of electricity.
The unit uses the same energy conversion technology as COMPS’ original Garbage-to-Energy (Gate) project, adjusted to suit smaller communities with lower energy and fuel consumption requirements. Its installation in an industrial container ensures that the unit is fully mobile and suitable for use in remote rural and agricultural communities.
“We identified a demand for smaller plants producing between 1bl/d and 10bbl/d of synthetic crude fuel from 1t/d to 10t/d of waste, which allows biomass processing to occur on site. This enables smaller communities or farmers to become self-sufficient in terms of waste disposal and energy generation,” says COMPS director and Wits benefactor, Professor Diane Hildebrandt (BSc Eng Chem 1981, MSc Eng Chem 1984, PhD (Chem) 1990).
The technology will allow the community to develop organically by becoming self-reliant, says Hildebrandt. “Suddenly, the local community has value in materials that are already available to them but previously held no inherent value. Now they are able to earn an income off these items previously considered simply waste products,” she explains.
The plant can process biomass, including grass, manure, garbage and human waste. It can manage with both small-scale energy-generation issues and the disposal of waste products.
The project was initiated after more than 20 years’ research by COMPS into FT synthesis and green energy generation, to achieve its ambition of creating a sustainable energy solution that could directly affect and specifically benefit African communities.
“Access to energy and quality of life are linked, and we need to be able to supply energy reliably, cheaply and efficiently if we are to improve the quality of life of people in Africa,” says Hildebrandt.