The average American generates 4.43 pounds (2 kilograms) of garbage every day. As a nation, we tossed out roughly 250 million tons (227 billion kilograms) of trash in 2010, from food waste to construction debris to outdated iPhones [source: EPA]. What if we could divert all of that waste from the landfill and convert it into usable energy? Doc Brown did it in "Back to the Future" -- feeding his DeLorean's cold fusion reactor with banana peels and beer -- and thanks to a process called gasification, so can we.
Gasification uses heat and pressure to crack the molecular compounds of almost any carbon-based material into a substance called synthetic gas, or syngas. All around the world, cities are replacing their landfills with gasification plants. In Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, the city is building a facility that will convert 100,000 tons (90 million kilograms) of municipal waste into 9.5 million gallons (35,961 cubic liters) of biofuel annually [source: City of Edmonton].
Inside the Edmonton facility, scheduled to open in 2013, municipal waste (garbage) will be sorted by type: compostable organic waste, recyclable material and waste products that would normally be sent to the landfill. Those leftovers will be shredded into a fine pulp and fed into the gasifier, where incredible heat — not fire — liquefies the material into carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), the major elements of syngas. The syngas will then pass through a catalytic converter where the molecules are rearranged to form ethanol, a standard biofuel, and methanol [source: Edmonton Biofuels].
From California to Finland, more of these plants are popping up to process wood-based waste and plain old garbage. Could Doc's DeLorean be far off? Well, yes. But when millions of tons of trash become millions of gallons of gas, that's another biofuel win for everyone.
For lots more information on biofuel, grassoline, garbage cars and other alternative fuels, explore the related links below.
Author's Note: 5 Ways Responsibly Produced Biofuels Benefit Everyone
It was inspiring to research this article and learn about all of the innovative energy technologies being implemented around the world. It's easy to get pessimistic about fossil fuels and climate change and gas prices, but it's exciting to know that there are smart minds at work developing the technologies that can turn wild grass and trash into fuel for my Ford. I hope that all of the potential benefits of a global switch to biofuels are realized in my lifetime. It would make this gas-guzzler proud.
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