Fuel-How to Have Your Cake and Eat It: With the Kyoto Protocol Pushing for a 30% Cut in Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2020, Industry Worldwide Urgently Needs a Revolutionary Alternative to 'Dirty' Fuels like Oil and Coal. Now a Team of South African Engineers Believes It Has Cracked the Problem with an Ingenious Solution. Emily Miller Reports from Cape Town

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The Centre of Material and Process Synthesis (Comps) in Johannesburg has developed a new method of turning industrial levels of everyday rubbish into ultra-clean transport fuel. The chemical reaction system, which gives 2.7 barrels of synthetic oil for each tonne of rubbish, emits 30% less carbon dioxide than comparative processes.

A low-cost scheme, it is being considered as a means of waste disposal by governments worldwide including in Dubai, Canada and Morocco. Experts at Comps, part of the University of the Witwatersrand, realise the concept of turning garbage into power may be a hard sell. To inspire investor confidence, their system has also been designed to process more conventional feedstocks. In September, work will start on the first commercial plant in China, running on coal to produce 3m tonnes of transport fuel a year.

Comps project manager Dr Brendon Hausberger said: "Sustainable energy is what we do. Tonne for tonne, you get the same output whether you put in waste or coal. We're the first in the world to be putting this into commercial practice, which shows our ideas are cost effective. Industry bosses are bound to have greater initial faith in conventional feedstocks like coal, but actually they would have an equally productive experience with rubbish. This is not radical mumbo jumbo. It's a very practical solution."

A Comps facility producing 28,000 barrels a day would earn $250m a year from coal or $230m from waste. The process is based on tried-and-tested Fischer-Tropsch, a catalysed chemical reaction model developed in Germany in the 1920s.

Used by petrol giant Sasol in South Africa for 50 years, the system continues to produce 30% of the country's liquid fuels today, and after 17 years of research, Comps has now evolved a version that converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons, excluding poisonous carbon monoxide used in the original method.

They say it is cleaner, more flexible and carries lower start-up costs. Dr Hausberger explains: "It's basically molecular recycling. Less carbon is lost to the atmosphere--which means more energy contained inside your system to produce fuel."

In June, Canada's Alternative Fuels Corporation (AFC) signed an agreement to promote Comps as a fuel-from-rubbish system across the Americas. AFC business vice president, Michael Hepworth, told African Business: "Waste has the lowest carbon footprint of all fuels. It's inexpensive compared to coal, which admittedly carries 50% more energy but is hugely capital intensive.

"This new system lessens the landfill problem of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more harmful than [CO.sub.2]. I'm not sure waste will ever replace fossil fuels, but every city with more than a million people should have a plant of this nature. We're talking to people in Brazil, Argentina, and across the US about deployment within the next few years." AFC have pinpointed a site near Sarnia, Ontario, where the first facility is expected to open.


The merits of nuclear power--principally a vastly increased output rate--are a hot topic at South African energy firm Eskom, whose proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor has been delayed by government. Plant for plant, Comps admit, their production speed will never compete, but dollar for dollar they believe it can. "Per unit of power production in plant, a coal- or waste-fed facility will always be cheaper," says Hausberger, adding "the safety requirements would be less".

Comps hopes this African technology will be a chance for the continent to take a global lead. Hausberger says: "The developing world has a chance here to learn from the mistakes of more advanced nations. Africans have learned to make the most of what they've got. The idea of putting waste to good use is just an extension of those habits."

For a quota of rubbish produced by 120,000 people, the Comps system requires a workforce of 350 to produce 900 barrels of fuel per day. …