New Process Uses Concentrated Solar Heat to Vaporize Biomass

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A U.S. startup has developed a process that uses concentrated solar heat to vaporize biomass into synthetic fuels, a system the company says is cleaner and more efficient and can produce twice as much fuel per ton of biomass as existing systems.

In the process, a network of solar mirrors direct sunlight at a mounted gasifying unit, heating ceramic tubes to 1,200 to 1,300 degrees Celsius.

Any biomass, such as wood and crop waste, that is passed through the tubes becomes vaporized and is converted into synthetic gas, the company says.

At such extreme temperatures, the process leaves behind little tar residue, which the developers say can be expensive to get rid of and can kill the catalysts that reform the product into liquid fuel later in the process.

And unlike other gasification processes — in which the heating comes from the burning of 30 to 35 percent of the biomass — this system requires no biomass to heat the unit, said Alan Weimer, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is working with Colorado-based Sundrop Fuels to commercialize the process.

Article appearing courtesy Yale Environment 360.

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Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The opinions and views expressed in Yale Environment 360 are those of the authors and not of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies or of Yale University.

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