How Gasification Works

Homemade Gasification

Does the future hold a lot more energy from gasifiers such as this one?
Does the future hold a lot more energy from gasifiers such as this one?
Phillip Spears/Getty Images

One attractive quality of gasification is its scalability. The Polk Power Station just southeast of Tampa is a gasification plant covering 4,300 acres (1,740 hectares). It converts 100 tons (90.7 metric tons) of coal an hour into 250 million watts of power for about 60,000 homes and businesses [source: Folger].

But you don't have to be a giant public utility to experiment with gasification. You can build a simple, small gasifier with materials you find around the house. YouTube features several videos of these homemade units. One video, for example, shows a paint can playing the role of the pressure vessel in which gasification reactions occur. As the syngas is produced inside the sealed can, it moves through some simple plumbing fittings to a burner can, where the gas can be ignited.

Another interesting video shows a small team assembling and operating a wood gasifier based on plans prepared by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. FEMA developed these plans in 1989 specifically for small-scale gasification in the event of a petroleum emergency. The agency's report includes detailed, illustrated instructions for the fabrication, installation and operation of a downdraft biomass gasifier. (A link to the report is included in the source list under "Lafontaine" below.) The unit requires a galvanized metal trash can, a small metal drum, common plumbing fittings and a stainless steel mixing bowl and can be mounted on a vehicle to provide syngas for internal combustion. With the gasifier in place, the vehicle can run reliably using wood chips or other biomass as the fuel.

If you're interested in gasification, but aren't the do-it-yourself type, then you might want to consider buying a gasification unit from a manufacturer. For example, New Horizon Corporation distributes gasification systems that can be installed in a home environment. These biomass gasification boilers can heat houses, garages and other buildings and can use a variety of fuels, including seasoned wood, corn cobs, sawdust, wood chips and any kind of pellet.

Either way, gasification will likely emerge as one of the most important energy alternatives in the coming decades. It's the cleanest way to use coal, but also works efficiently with renewable energy sources, such as biomass. And, because one of the primary products of gasification is hydrogen, the process offers a stepping stone to producing large quantities of hydrogen for fuel cells and cleaner fuels.

Keep reading for more links to the future of energy and green technology.

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  • Captain, Sean. "Turning Black Coal Green." Popular Science. Feb. 1, 2007. (May 15, 2009)
  • Folger, Tim. "Can Coal Come Clean?" Discover Magazine. Dec. 18, 2006. (May 15, 2009)
  • Gasification Technologies Council. "Gasification: Redefining Clean Energy." 2008. (May 15, 2009)
  • Haq, Zia. "Biomass for Electricity Generation." Energy Information Administration. May 13, 2002. (May 15, 2009)
  • Jenkins, Steve. "Gasification 101." Gasification Technologies Workshop. May 13, 2008. (May 15, 2009)
  • LaFontaine, H. and F.P. Zimmerman. "Construction of a Simplified Wood Gas Generator for Fueling Internal Combustion Engines in a Petroleum Emergency." Federal Emergency Management Agency. March 1989. (May 15, 2009)
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Biofuels from Switchgrass: Greener Energy Pastures." (May 15, 2009)
  • Rajvanshi, Anil K. "Biomass Gasification." Published as chapter in Alternative Energy in Agriculture. 1986. (May 15, 2009)