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Babassu oil and plasma torches

February 11, 2011

After a long winter break we devote the first post of the year to renewable fuels. In this article in the Economist, the challenges of converting to biofuels in the aviation industry are pointed out. In a test flight in 2008, a Boeing 747 flew across the Atlantic with one of four engines powered by a fuel mix with 20% babassu (a palm) and coconut oil. After the test Greenpeace complained that those 20% were the equivalent of 150,000 coconuts and that the use of biofuels in aviation would encourage land clearance and push up food prices.

The versatility of fossil fuels is also very hard to match as they remain liquid at -50C, have a high energy content, are very efficient and are readily available around the world. To bring the share of biofuels in aviation up to 6% would require investments of $15-20 billion, and this would reduce green house emissions down by 4%, or 20 million tonnes.  

Extracting fuel from already existing waste certainly seems a lot less controversial. An electric arc is used to vaporise the shredded waste and turn it into syngas and slag, where the slag can be used to make bricks or pave roads. Early version of these plasma torches, as they are called, were very expensive to run. Now companies in America and Australia have manage to bring down the costs to reasonable levels and one plant in Florida creates enough syngas from household waste to make electricity for 20,000 homes .

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