In a recent collaboration, NASA has tested a new technology which turns waste into “green” fuel for possible use on the International Space Station and in long term space missions.

Developed by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, Sonil Nanda, USask Chemical and Biological Engineering Research Associate, and his supervisor Ajay Dalai, has developed a high-quality syngas, a fuel gas mixture containing crop and forestry residues, food waste, cattle manure, petroleum, and petrochemical waste.

Consisting of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane, they syngas can be used as a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels and also used to create other by-products such as green diesel and hydrogen fuel cells for cars. 

“Canada could be a leader in this kind of technology because it produces lots of residual feedstock from the agriculture and forestry sectors that can be turned into syngas and its by-products,” said Dalai, USask Canada Research Chair of Bio-Energy and Environmentally Friendly Chemical Processing.

Through a collaboration with the University of Waterloo, Nanda and Dalai worked with NASA to apply their technology to convert organic waste and wastewater into energy for possible use on the International Space Station and in long-term space missions.

The researchers have since been improving their syngas production by making it faster and possibly cheaper, as well as “greener” by using water in place of fossil fuels to break down the feedstock and produce syngas.

Nanda and Dalai’s approach saves energy by creating syngas at high pressure and relatively lower temperatures than traditional methods, a process called supercritical water gasification.

“As the feedstocks we use to produce syngas are either non-plant residues or non-edible waste, our approach doesn’t take anything away from the production of human food and animal fodder,” said Nanda.

Nanda said the new technology is a win-win because in addition to syngas, the other by-product of the process is a dark material called biochar, similar to burned coal.

“Biochar can be used as an organic fertilizer with great benefits for maintaining soil health and useful soil microorganisms, and helping increase plant yields,” said Dalai.

In addition, unlike traditional methods that cause the emission of harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide produced in the team’s process helps plants produce oxygen, potentially making it a carbon neutral technology, says Dalai.

The researchers expect to see the improved water-based technology commercialised in three to five years. The method is not widespread yet due to high maintenance costs