How Garbage-powered Cars Could Work

Why power cars with garbage?

Whether you've been driving for three years or thirty, you know that gas prices are volatile -- to put it politely. Political unrest, storms, natural disasters -- any number of things can disrupt the flow of oil and gasoline to the United States, and a disrupted flow means higher prices. Finding new domestic sources of fuel has moved up on our list of priorities in recent years.

Greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change are on our radar, too. Fossil fuels contribute to greenhouse gasses in the environment at nearly every stage of their cycle, from getting them out of the ground to processing them for use to actually using them in our cars. Reducing these emissions would go a long way toward easing the burden on our environment.

The Department of Energy (DOE) notes that syngas, no matter what feedstock is used, allows for a near zero-emissions production process and is configurable for carbon capture storage. It also meets the strictest U.S. environmental emissions regulations for sulfur dioxide, particulates and toxic contaminants.

Turning the syngas into ethanol makes powering cars with garbage even easier. Ethanol is already approved for use and can be found at 10 to 15 percent at many gas stations today. Flex-fuel vehicles would be able to use even more ethanol, often 85 percent ethanol mixed with 15 percent gasoline, in the tank.

There are lots of kinds of garbage that can be used as feedstock, from the trash collected in Seattle to the corn waste in the Midwest to pulp and paper industry leftovers in the Southeast. There's no need to use actual food that people could eat, like corn, when you can use trash that would otherwise be picked up at the curb and end up in a landfill. "There's no way you would pay to put your trash in a hole in the ground when you can make money off it," says Coskata's Bolsen. "It's like burying cash."

Cities like Chicago, which has nearly filled its landfill with municipal waste, are looking at systems like Coskata's for dealing with garbage in the future. There must be a catch, though, right? Maybe.

Keep reading to learn some of the challenges facing this new technology.