The gigantic waste hauling company Waste Management has been transforming itself into something of a jolly green giant, given its recycling operations, landfill gas recovery and sewage-to-biofuel ventures. In its latest move, company signed an agreement with the research firm Genomatica to develop processes for converting municipal landfill gas to basic chemical products that are in turn used to manufacture plastics and many other chemical products. It’s an important step forward for the green chemistry movement, which seeks to use renewable or non-toxic feedstocks in chemical manufacturing.
Chemicals from Syngas
Petroleum, natural gas, and gassified coal are conventional feedstocks for syngas (synthetic gas), which can be burned as fuel or used to manufacture other products. Since biomass and waste materials can also be used to make syngas, there is a potential to shift away from fossil feedstocks and focus more on renewables. However, until now the process for converting syngas to other chemicals has been energy intensive and not widely applicable.
Energy Efficient Syngas from Landfills
Genomatica’s solution is an energy efficient, microbe-based process. It has proven successful on various renewable feedstocks including plain sugar. The company’s first product is “green” 1,4-butanediol, a chemical which is used to manufacture plastics. It is also the foundation for other chemical products. Now the challenge is to develop a microbe that is hardy enough to chew through gas produced from municipal solid waste.
New Life for Waste Gas
Municipal landfills aren’t the only places where renewable gas feedstocks can be harvested from waste. Over in New Zealand, a company called LanzaTech has developed a microbe-based process for converting waste gas from steel mills into ethanol. It sure makes a lot more sense to harvest chemical feedstocks from steel mills and landfills, rather than blowing up mountains or putting our coastal communities at risk.
Image: Landfill by D’Arcy Norman on flickr.com.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.