April 18, 2005

Sunny Chemistry 

Today, while searching a database for a paper on the kinetics of the water gas shift reaction (yes, that's my line of work), I stumbled across the work of a research group studying a sun-powered reactor for the gasification of petcoke (petroleum coke), a residue of some heavy crude refining processes. I am quite a fan of gasification processes, those used to convert basically any combustible material (gas, oils, coal, tars, coke, biomass, plastics) in syngas, useful for a number of industrial processes such as ammonia and methanol synthesis and Fischer-Tropsch processes, or even Hydrogen (the new object of worship of the enviro-folks) and I find this idea for the use of sun power quite interesting.

Gasification processes have a major drawback: they are inherently endothermic (loosely, they consume heat instead of producing it) and this means that part of the material to be gasified, or another fuel, must be burned to obtain the heat required in the process. In turn, this poses a practical limit on the efficiency of gasification - plus other more subtle difficulties. Using an external source of heat would resolve some problems, and indeed already in the 80s a German group thought of using nuclear energy for this scope (remembering from an old Scientific American* article). But we all know what's the current reputation of nuclear energy. At the same time, an Israeli group was already working on the use of solar power to produce syngas, so the idea is not exactly new.

From what I gather, however, the novelty is to use this petcoke as a feedstock for gasification: these crude treatment residues are always a pain in the back, because it's hard to find a good use for them. A refinery in Italy was using topping bottoms (a sort of tar) for its own thermal power station, but the local environmentalists did not like it.
This research is still at a rather initial state - they are using a lab-scale reactor placed in a sun simulator, and studying the relationships between apllied light power (and other factors) and reaction kinetics, but it may be the beginning of interesting developments in the field of gasification. And maybe the environmentalists would have only little to object.

* It wasn't exactly Scientific American but Le Scienze, its Italian edition.


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Dear Stefania, I know you are very passionate about the important cause of the Iranian freedom movement. But dropping such a comment on thread that has nothing to do with Iran isn't exactly a behaviour I appreciate.
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