Making Dirty Clean: Scientists Use Landfill Byproducts for Hydrogen Fuel
Making Dirty Clean: Scientists Use Landfill Byproducts for Hydrogen Fuel

Making Dirty Clean: Scientists Use Landfill Byproducts for Hydrogen Fuel

August 13, 2014

If you’ve ever driven by a landfill, you have had the horrendous experience of smelling the waste of thousands of people. Now, imagine if that car you were driving actually was running on those putrid fumes.


Enter stage: hydrogen cells. You probably know that hydrogen doesn’t come from the breakdown of waste, but that it’s actually methane and carbon dioxide that are the byproducts from these landfills. But exciting new research has shown there’s a way to come up with hydrogen by banging these two greenhouse gasses together. When used for fuel, hydrogen’s only byproduct is water vapor. Seems like a no brainer, right? Well, not so much.


“The heart of the process for the production of hydrogen from landfill gas is the catalyst, and this can be disrupted by the presence of carbon,” said researcher Fabio B. Noronha, Ph.D., explaining that finding the right catalyst is the problem. As it stands, scientists have found the carbon to be acting like a contaminant, rather than catalyst. “Because of carbon deposition, the catalyst loses the capacity to convert the landfill gases into hydrogen.”


Now, enter stage to upstage: new catalyst. Noronha’s team has come up with a new material that removes the carbon as soon as it forms. The material is based on current commercial ceramic automotive catalysts, designed to control vehicle emissions.


With catalyst in hand–or in lab–the team is working to bring this material and mode of conversion to commercial levels. They will be testing the method on the larger scale, sourcing from their nearest landfill location.


Sound exciting? It is. But the important part to remember is that just as important as the technology is the infrastructure to bring this to a commercial and viable scale. Some estimates say that finding and installing the kind of infrastructure and technology–both on the fuel and vehicle sides–could cost up to $500 billion.


But with each new breakthrough, we get one step closer to making this a viable option.



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FEATURED PHOTO: Bill McChesney/Flickr

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