Researchers at SERC are studying alternative pathways for biomass energy to displace fossil fuels in existing high-efficiency power plants. Chemical reactions can harness waste heat to convert biomass into a hydrogen-rich syngas, displacing fossil fuel consumption. Modeling work at SERC estimates that integrated systems can produce between 5% and 100% of a power plant’s fuel requirement from biomass, depending on the quality of the waste heat resource. If applied to internal combustion engine power plants, blending hydrogen-rich syngas with natural gas additionally reduces untreated nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by up to 95% and increases engine efficiency by up to 25%.
Over the past year, SERC’s Dr. David Vernon led a research team to study aqueous phase reformation (APR) of plant-derived sugars to produce a hydrogen-rich syngas. This project, funded by the California Energy Commission, investigated the potential to use this low temperature reformation process to recover waste heat from natural gas power plants. SERC engineers designed, built, and tested a benchtop chemical reactor to convert aqueous sorbitol (C6H14O6) into an energy-rich gas consisting of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane. Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, was selected as the feedstock because it is easily produced from glucose, a biomass derivative, and reforming sorbitol produces hydrogen at a faster rate than reforming glucose.
Testing was completed in April. Our results showed that APR is able to convert up to 94% of the input sorbitol into a hydrogen-rich gaseous fuel. By synthesizing our own catalysts at SERC, we were able to produce a gas containing 64% hydrogen by volume. Furthermore, the output liquid and gas were found to contain 46% more chemical energy than the input feedstock.
Based on these promising results, we conclude that it is feasible to use APR in waste heat recovery applications. We have applied for additional funding to continue this work. Next, we plan to use crude glycerol, a byproduct of biodiesel production, as the feedstock. Our economic models predict that converting crude glycerol will significantly reduce the lifecycle costs of the system, making this process more cost competitive than other waste heat recovery technologies such as organic Rankine cycles.