06 Jun 2024

How gasification powered progress through the ages

How gasification powered progress through the ages

Gasification, the process of converting solid carbonaceous materials into gases through partial combustion, has a rich history of applications that have evolved over time. From early lighting solutions to modern waste-to-energy systems, gasification has played a pivotal role in various sectors.

In this chemical reaction, carbon-containing materials react with water and oxygen to form a mixture of gases, called synthesis gas (syngas) composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

General reaction: CnHmOp+ O2+ H2O → H2+ CO (+ CO2+ other species)

Early Discovery and Adoption

The earliest discovery of gasification is often credited to Belgian chemist and physician Jan Baptista van Helmont, who observed in 1609 that burning wood produced a gas, which he called "gas sylvestre" (carbon dioxide). While this wasn't gasification in the modern sense, it laid the groundwork for understanding gas production from solid materials.

These early observations led to further research and advancements until the late 1700s when William Murdoch, a Scottish engineer and inventor, discovered that heating coal in the absence of air produced a gas suitable for lighting. By around 1792, he had successfully lit his house in Cornwall with coal gas. This innovation marked the beginning of the use of gasification for practical purposes.

London streetlamps. Image by freepik.
London streetlamps. Image by freepik

England was the first to adopt the widespread use of “town gas” for lighting. In 1807, London's Pall Mall became one of the first streets to be lit by gas, marking the start of a new era in urban lighting.

Following the UK, cities such as Baltimore and Boston in the United States adopted gas lighting early on. Paris, Berlin, and other major European cities followed suit, installing gas lighting throughout the 19th century. These advancements not only improved public safety but also spurred urban growth and nighttime economy.

Industrial Gas Production

Building on the initial applications, gasification has been incorporated as a key industrial process in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the Industrial Revolution, gasification was central to the steel industry.

In Britain, gasification was integral to the operation of blast furnaces, where coke derived from coal was gasified to produce carbon monoxide for reducing iron ore into iron. In American cities like Pittsburgh, the steel industry also utilised gasification extensively. The technology was essential for meeting the high demand for steel in construction and manufacturing.

The Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis, which required hydrogen from syngas, was developed in Germany around 1913. This innovation was crucial for producing fertilisers that supported agricultural productivity worldwide.

Fueling Transportation in World War II

During World War II, liquid fuels were scarce, prompting the adaptation of gasification for transportation. Many vehicles in Germany were equipped with wood gasifiers, which converted wood or charcoal into a combustible gas mixture to fuel internal combustion engines. Similar adaptations were made in France and Sweden, where gasification for transportation became widespread. This ingenuity helped maintain mobility and logistics despite fuel shortages.

The Shift Toward Energy Independence

In the post-war era, the United States developed gasification plants to produce synthetic natural gas (SNG), especially during the 1970s energy crisis. These efforts aimed to reduce dependence on imported oil and leverage domestic coal resources.

Industrial transport of coal
Industrial transport of coal

The Sasol company in South Africa began producing synthetic fuels from coal gasification even earlier, in the 1950s. This technology was crucial during the apartheid era when international oil embargoes were in place, ensuring a stable fuel supply for the country.

In Europe, the Buggenum plant in the Netherlands was one of the first commercial Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants, starting operations in the 1990s. This plant demonstrated the viability of gasification for efficient and cleaner electricity generation.

Contemporary Uses of Gasification: The Waste-to-Energy Era

Modern applications of gasification have transitioned in the 1990s from coal and wood gasification to solid waste gasification, a type of waste-to-energy process. Japan has been a leader in these technologies, with several gasification plants converting municipal solid waste into energy. This approach addresses both waste management and energy production challenges in a densely populated country.

Germany has similarly implemented waste gasification plants, reflecting the country’s commitment to sustainable energy solutions. Various states in the US, including California and New York, have also explored and developed waste gasification projects aimed to manage waste more effectively and generate renewable energy.

Taking waste-to-energy one step further, projects in the UK and the US are looking at the manufacture of sustainable liquid fuels from gasification of waste, harking back to South African synthetic fuel production from coal gasification.

Avioxx has launched a project leveraging gasification technology alongside electrolysis and solid oxide fuel cell power generation to develop a highly efficient first-of-a-kind sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) plant converting waste to fuel. The plant is planned to be operational as early as 2026.

3D render of the future Avioxx sustainable aviation fuel refinery
3D render of the future Avioxx sustainable aviation fuel refinery
Powering the Future

From its early use in street lighting to its modern applications in waste-to-energy systems, gasification has proven to be a versatile and valuable technology. Its historical applications across different regions highlight its adaptability and importance in addressing various energy and industrial needs. As we continue to seek sustainable solutions for our energy and waste challenges, gasification remains a promising technology backed by a legacy of innovation and utility.

To learn more about Avioxx’s process to convert waste to SAF via gasification, please get in touch at info@avioxx.com.