Converting landfill gas (LFG) into clean vehicle fuel is more than just a good idea at the BKK Sanitary Landfill in West Covina, Calif. TeraMeth Industries (TMI), Walnut Creek, Calif., will soon start building the world's first plant to turn LFG into liquid methanol - processing up to 3.7 million cubic feet of LFG per day, according to the company.
The $9.4 million plant is funded in part with a $500,000 grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the air pollution regulation enforcement agency in the Los Angeles area. It is simple to see the motivation behind AQMD's grant: The Los Angeles region has the most unhealthy air quality in the United States.
In fact, there are reportedly more days of poor air quality in Los Angeles than in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Denver and many other cities combined. With such severe problems, the city has been issued state and federal deadlines to improve this situation.
In the Los Angeles area, even flaring LFG is considered an inadequate solution.
AQMD estimates that every million tons of buried refuse emits 972 tons per year of methane and 13.6 tons per year of reactive organic gases, which when combined with sunlight form unhealthy ground-level ozone in smog. In addition, landfills release emissions of air toxics, which are also regulated by AQMD.
TeraMeth approached BKK with the idea in 1990, according to Ronald R. Gastelum, BKK's chief administrative officer. BKK's involvement is limited to renting the space and providing a hookup to the gas collection system, Gastelum said. "We agreed to charge TeraMeth very little so that we could help them with their innovative project."
An LFG-to-methanol plant is the simple solution to many needs, according to Dr. Alan Lloyd, AQMD's chief scientist: "TeraMeth is turning what was considered a potentially dangerous waste product into a commercial fuel feedstock," Lloyd said.
One major market for methanol has been established with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has the world's largest fleet of methanol buses. Flexible fuel vehicles, which run on any combination of methanol and gasoline, are available from local dealers and many cities and government agencies already have methanol or flex-fuel fleet vehicles. TeraMeth's plant is expected to produce 10,000 gallons of methanol each day - or enough to fuel 150 urban transit buses.
Methanol is also being used in experimental vehicles that chemically convert the fuel into electrical power through a fuel cell, without combustion. Fuel cell-electric buses and other vehicles, once perfected, have the potential to lead to virtually smog-free exhaust emissions.
"When we produce methanol from gas that's normally flared, we reduce pollution," said TeraMeth President Alan M. Bonny. "In comparison, major methanol plants [that use natural gas as feedstock] are net pollution producers; a 2,500 ton-per-year plant produces 200 or more tons of nitrogen oxides a year."
The plant, which is expected to begin operation later this year, will be located on-site where BKK also operates two on-site cogeneration facilities and two flaring stations. The new plant is designed to handle the gas that would otherwise be flared.
TeraMeth estimates that converting LFG to methanol at the BKK site will eliminate 98 percent of the smog-forming reactive organic gases and substantial amounts of other pollutants that now go in the air after flaring (see chart). The project could produce methanol for as long as LFG is being produced - an estimated 20 to 30 years.
According to Bonny, the meth-anol is already earmarked for sale to Mays Chemical, an Indianapolis firm, which has discussed providing methanol for fleet vehicles and the California Methanol Reserve. Landfill operators also could use the output of such plants to power their trucks and vehicles, said Bonny.