Hydrogen from Waste: Challenges, Government Actions, and Technologies

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Written by Zoltan Kish, Ph.D., Quasar ScienceTech

Many countries have taken an early lead in the hydrogen economy development. Canada can play an important role in sustainable economic development based on hydrogen. The global hydrogen market size was valued at USD 117.49 billion in 2019. Hydrogen has re-emerged as an exciting and potential long-term way to address climate change and air quality while creating opportunities for the industry to grow. According to the Goldman Sachs estimate, the Green Hydrogen market could be worth €10 trillion ($11.7 trillion) by 2050, split between Asia, the U.S. and Europe. The recently proposed Hydrogen Strategy for Canada and Ontario Low-Carbon Hydrogen Strategy lays out an ambitious framework for actions that will cement hydrogen as a tool to achieve a speedy economic recovery from the devastating COVID-19 impact, while also helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions and position Canada as a global, industrial leader of clean renewable fuels. Launching a hydrogen strategy has the potential to inspire other cleantech industries and further develop a sustainable and knowledge-based economy in Canada.

The increasing application of hydrogen is anticipated in the following sectors: industry, transportation, power and chemical production, building and communities. Hydrogen is produced in various ways, such as natural gas steam reformation and pyrolysis, water electrolysis, coal and biomass gasification. Whereas, currently, natural gas is the primary source of hydrogen production via steam methane reformation. Depending on the method of production, hydrogen has the potential to be low-carbon, which can help decarbonize our economy.

In addition to the conventional way of hydrogen production, low-carbon hydrogen can be produced from waste using advanced waste conversion technologies.

The Waste Challenge

Hydrogen from Waste

The increasing amount of waste is one of the most challenging problems facing the World. Around the World, 2.12 billion tons of garbage every year is produced. Contaminated and mixed waste products (e.g., plastics, paper, MSW, industrial and medical waste) are challenging to recycle in the traditional way – mechanical/physical processing. Especially, traditional plastic waste recycling has difficulties and limitations. Mechanical sorting is not effective for mixed plastic waste. Thousands of different types of plastic are manufactured by combinations of different resin types, dyes, and additives. Even carefully selected plastic materials can only be recycled limited times into similar products since it degrades every time after reheating. Therefore, most plastic products are downcycled into items of reduced value, such as textiles, toys or even construction materials, and eventually, end up in landfills and water resources creating tremendous environmental problems. The recent study – Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste concludes by Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) that landfilling 87% of plastic waste represents a CA$7.8 billion lost opportunity. By 2030, it is estimated that Canada’s lost opportunity related to unrecovered plastics could rise to CA$11.1 billion, under a business-as-usual scenario following the same end uses and value recovery performance as the current baseline.

Without effective recycling, most of the waste is sent to landfills and the energy in waste is essentially lost, producing mountains of trash, emitting harmful pollutants into our air, water and soil and creating enormous environmental problems. In landfills, the biodegradable components of waste decompose and emit methane – a greenhouse gas, which is more harmful than CO2. Landfills release many smog and acid rain related components and persistent organic pollutants, from both natural processes and landfill fires. Landfill fires, earth movements, groundwater flows, and development all contribute to landfill leachate of toxic substances (e.g., mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, organic toxins) to eventually seep and contaminate nearby ecosystems. Besides, we have an additional problem in Ontario. As Mike Chopowick, CEO at Ontario Waste Management Association, recently wrote in his article – Ontario’s garbage crisis is urgent, “Every bag of garbage we throw out brings us one step closer to running out of landfill space. Our landfill capacity deadline of 2032 will arrive even sooner — by 2028, just eight years away — should the U.S. government decide to close the border to Ontario’s garbage.” Currently, 30% of Ontario’s waste has been shipped by 100,000 semi-truck trailer loads travelling each year to Michigan creating a tremendous amount of pollution.

Canada and many other countries in the world are facing a waste management crisis. Waste accumulation problems are growing. In addition to current waste problems, the produced waste will be further increased in the health care, hospitality and food sectors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic could be a wake-up call for waste handling and reduction. Regrettably, Canada and other G7 countries are planning to use waste-to-energy incineration as part of plastic pollution solutions. However, incineration is a very costly and inefficient way for waste conversion into energy and generating highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants. The flue gas of the waste combustion is significantly diluted and increased in volume by the nitrogen content of the excess air use. The large volume of the flue gas is more difficult to clean and costly.

Fundamental Shifts

We need a fundamental shift in the way of produced waste handling. The circular economy is not only based on simply reusing waste products. The purpose of recycling is to redesign and convert waste into forms retaining as high-value as possible in a circular economy. There is a requirement for a new and innovative approach in the development of a solution for the waste management challenges, waste recycling, plastic waste pollution reduction and a working circular economy.

The environmental impact of waste can be minimized by applying proper waste management using advanced waste conversion technologies. Chemical recycling as waste recycling using effective waste conversion technology is essential for a working circular economy. Whereas, Chemical Recycling of waste can be defined as a chemical process converting waste materials into new usable products with desirable properties and composition for required applications. Garbage can be converted into high-value products using advanced and cost-effective waste conversion technologies. Perspectives of different waste conversion technologies are provided in the article – “Perspectives on Waste-to-Energy Technologies”. In a circular economy, chemical recycling based on effective waste conversion technologies can play a pivotal role in waste conversion into usable materials and clean energy.

The Government has recognized (e.g., Zero Plastic Waste: Canada’s actionsWaste-Free Ontario ActStrategy for a Waste-Free Ontario Building the Circular Economy and many other documents) that waste diversion from landfills, recovering valuable resources and greenhouse gas emission reduction can be achieved by incorporating chemical recycling and emerging technologies into waste management practices. However, without the Government’s support and endorsement for chemical recycling as part of the circular economy, municipalities and private sectors are not in a position to move forward with implementing waste conversion technologies based on chemical recycling. On the other hand, in 2019 Illinois and Ohio, like many other US states, had passed new laws making it easier to build chemical recycling facilities, regulating them as recycling operations rather than waste processing plants. The Canadian Government could also consider this new approach using Chemical Recycling in waste management as recycling operations.

Technology Solutions

In response to the waste accumulation problems, an innovative and cost-effective waste convection technology has been further developed after many years of testing at the pre-commercial waste conversion facility. The developed advanced clean technology is based on a steam gasification process in combination with a reliable scrubbing/cleaning system. The proposed waste steam gasification, as a chemical recycling process, satisfies the purpose of recycling to convert waste into forms retaining as high value as possible in a circular economy. The steam gasification technology represents a potential alternative to the traditional treatments of waste feedstocks.

During traditional gasification and incineration, the required heat is produced directly in the reaction chamber. As a result of the oxidation component of the traditional gasification systems, noxious oxides (e.g., nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides), furans and dioxins are generated during these processes. Furans and dioxins are highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants even at a very low concentration. Additionally, the produced synthesis gas (syngas) will be significantly diluted by the oxidation process which includes the nitrogen content of the air and produced carbon dioxide and water vapour. Therefore, the heating value of syngas produced from the traditional gasification process is significantly reduced. The lower quality syngas fuel generated from partial oxidation gasification can be run in reciprocating engines, but generally cannot be used as a fuel for cleaner burning and more efficient gas turbines, due to its relatively low heating value. The hydrogen content of the produced syngas is significantly reduced as a result of the reaction with introduced oxygen to the gasification reactor. Additionally, traditional gasification of waste produces more carbon dioxide due to the carbon content of waste reaction with oxygen, and typically requires extensive and expensive waste feedstock pre-treatment and cleaning/scrubbing system.

On the other hand, the application of the steam gasification process for waste processing eliminates pollution created by incineration and traditional gasification processes. The waste steam gasification is a thermo-chemical process and is based on the waste materials reaction with steam without the participation of oxygen or air at elevated temperature. The main product of the reactions is syngas. The steam gasification technology represents a potential alternative for the traditional waste treatments to produce higher heating content syngas, which has a higher hydrogen concentration and lower carbon dioxide content than products produced by traditional gasification. The steam gasification process does not generate noxious oxides (nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides), furans and dioxins. The chemistry is different due to the high concentration of steam as a reactant and the total exclusion of air and, therefore, oxygen from the steam gasification process. Contaminates are easier to remove from the produced syngas because it is not diluted by excess air or nitrogen and products of combustion. Utilizing an indirectly heated kiln with an effective scrubbing/cleaning system, the waste steam gasification technology is a novel and unconventional waste conversion technology, which allows for robust operation of various heterogeneous waste feedstocks, such as plastics, MSW, biomass, used tires, sewage sludge, industrial and medical waste. The developed technology significantly reduces the requirements for pre-processing feedstock. The high quality of the produced syngas and residual waste heat can be used to power combined cycle gas turbines, reciprocating gas engines or potentially fuel cells for the generation of electricity and produce hydrogen from waste. Besides, because of the high hydrogen to carbon monoxide ratio of the produced syngas, the technology can be coupled with a Gas-to-Liquids technology (e.g., based on the Fischer – Tropsch process) to produce higher-value liquid synthetic fuels and chemicals.

The steam gasification technology, as an innovative and cost-effective chemical recycling process of waste, is the most suitable for contaminated & mixed waste conversion into clean energy and sustainable products, such as hydrogen, electricity, liquid synthetic fuels, and chemicals. At the current stage of the market demand, the application of steam gasification for waste processing into hydrogen can provide a cost-effective solution for waste accumulation problems and diversion from landfills. The waste diversion from landfills and recycling into hydrogen can protect the environment from pollutions and save natural resources by incorporating chemical recycling based on the waste steam reformation technology into waste management practices. Furthermore, if the processing waste is renewable feedstocks (e.g., agricultural or forest waste), the produced hydrogen can be considered green and the process can be considered carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative if the produced CO2 is captured and utilized (e.g., in greenhouses). Hydrogen production from waste is a cost-effective solution for waste diversion from landfills and recycling into a high-value product. The green hydrogen can be a base feedstock for green chemical production, such as green ammonia.

The developed cost-effective waste steam gasification technology as a chemical recycling process can provide a comprehensive and innovative solution to the complex problems of waste management, hydrogen production, environment protection, depletion of natural resources, and moving towards a circular economy. The application of the cost-effective waste steam gasification technology has competitive advantages over currently used hydrogen production and waste management technologies. The low-carbon hydrogen produced from waste holds the potential to decarbonize many sectors of our economy, including resource extraction, freight, transportation, power generation, manufacturing, oil refinery, and the production of steel, chemicals and cement. The use of the advanced steam gasification technology as a cost-effective chemical recycling process provides an innovative waste management strategy to divert waste from landfills and water resources and produce clean energy and sustainable products. Chemical recycling based on the cost-effective steam gasification technology can provide a fundamental shift in the way of waste handling in a circular economy. Waste conversion into hydrogen could become a base of the hydrogen and circular economy.

With the Government’s support, the waste steam gasification technology can be brought to the market as an industrial waste processing plant recycling waste into high-value sustainable products, such as hydrogen, chemicals and clean energy. The hydrogen production from waste can create many highly skilled jobs in the CleanTech and the waste management sectors and opportunities to export Canadian technologies around the Globe. With the right approach, Canada can be a front-runner in leading sustainable waste management and circular and hydrogen economy developments.

About the Author

Dr. Zoltan Kish has a Ph.D. in Chemistry with over 25 years of diverse industrial and academic experience and contributed to more than 70 scientific publications. He has developed and managed complex research and development programs related to alternative/renewable energy, clean technologies, effective waste conversion into usable products, sustainability, and advanced materials applications, such as solar energy technology, ceramic engine & cutting tool components, materials processing, and electronics. Dr. Kish was the Director of Research & Development at two Canadian alternative energy companies where he focused on R&D and commercialization of advanced waste conversion technologies and reliable scrubbing/cleaning systems to produce clean energy and sustainable products. In response to global environmental challenges and market requirements for viable economic growth, he has established a consulting company – Quasar ScienceTech (www.quasarsciencetech.com) to develop advanced technologies and provide multidisciplinary science and technology consulting in the areas of Natural & Applied Sciences, Clean Technologies & Energy, Waste Conversion, Scrubbing Systems, Advanced Materials, Innovation, Technical Due Diligence, Environmental Protection, Climate Change Mitigation, Circular Economy and Sustainability.