Syngas is the abbreviation of synthesis gas. It Is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO). Syngas is a major intermediate for the process industry to make hydrogen, CO, ammonia, methanol, and liquid fuels. It is also used as a (low-calorific-value) fuel directly to generate heat and power, which were quite common some years ago in the first wave of biofuels application in the bioeconomy space.
Syngas is generated through steam reforming of methane and higher hydrocarbons or gasification of various feedstocks. Traditionally steam reforming produces the largest quantity of syngas globally for the manufacturing of hydrogen for the oil refining and ammonia and methanol, as well as for carbon monoxide for the chemical industry. Coal gasification now produces a much larger quantity than steam reforming thanks to China’s push in the past two decades. Because of its flexibility towards feedstocks, gasification will be used more and more for syngas generation in the future, while the use of fossil fuel declines. Particularly in the space of waste recycling, syngas generation through gasification will play an increasingly significant role. This is evidenced by a large number of new initiatives of syngas production projects applying solid waste gasification in all geographic regions of the world.
The most important property of the syngas is its ratio of hydrogen to carbon monoxide. This depends on the hydrogen-to-carbon ratio in the feedstock and the technology that is used for making the syngas. Methane has a high hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of four and would be selected if syngas of a high hydrogen-to-CO ratio is required. Examples are that when the desired product is hydrogen or ammonia, reacting methane with steam which also contains a lot of hydrogen would be a preferred choice. Ideally, coal (or coke) with its lowest hydrogen-to-carbon ratio would be the desired feedstock for low hydrogen-to-CO ratio syngas, such as a chemical plant using pure CO. When the target products are methanol, or liquid fuels like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), the desired hydrogen-to-CO ratio is two, between those of steam reforming and coal gasification. The hydrogen-to-CO ratio of syngas can be adjusted by reactions of (reverse) water-gas shift (WGS). The green hydrogen from water electrolysis and green carbon dioxide from direct air capture can also be used to control and adjust the hydrogen-to-CO ratio of syngas.
In the bioeconomy space, syngas will play an important role in the recycling of solid waste materials. For wastes that are difficult to recycle, like municipal solid wastes, industrial solid waste, and unrecyclable plastics, gasification is a preferred technology. The produced syngas can be used as alternative carbon sources for the fuels industry and the chemicals industry.
The selection of the syngas manufacturing route and technology is not straightforward. The availability of feedstocks is another major factor that comes into play. The purification and the utilization of syngas that is generated from the gasification of waste materials pose challenges, too. Here, a larger number of impurities in higher quantity are present in comparison to that generated from conventional routes. Improved or new syngas cleaning technology is being developed and applied. How to best utilize syngas and thus the green carbon it contains is undergoing a lot of discussions and experimentations at the industrial scale. SAF is the desired product with strong demand from the aviation industry, while methanol receives a lot of attention for applications such as maritime fuel.
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