What Is Syngas?

Syngas, or synthesis gas, is a versatile fuel blend primarily composed of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and often some carbon dioxide. It's produced from the gasification of a carbon-containing feedstock, such as coal or biomass. This energy-rich gas can be used to generate electricity, produce chemicals, or as a building block for synthetic fuels. How might syngas shape our sustainable energy future? Continue reading to find out.
Jillian O Keeffe
Jillian O Keeffe

Syngas, short for synthesis gas, is a form of energy that is not present naturally, but which can be artificially produced from substances that contain carbon, such as farming waste or byproducts of the forestry industry. The term syngas does not refer to treatment with microbes, but rather to gas produced through applications of stresses like temperature or pressure. Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases make up syngas, although other gases may also be present.

Biomass is the scientific term for substances that have once been alive. All cellular organisms use the carbon atom as a major component of their makeup, and hydrogen is another common part of living things. As living organisms take in energy to perform essential metabolic functions, and also store energy inside the structure of the plant or animal, when they die they leave behind a dead object which contains locked-in energy. When organisms die, typically other organisms eat them, in order to scavenge the energy locked up inside. Common examples of the organisms that break down and ingest dead things are bacteria and fungi.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

Normally, dead things are quickly eaten by microbes, and gas is a byproduct. The alternative energy market can use microbial degradation to make gas, which in turn can be used by people for energy. Syngas is not produced by this method, but by an alternative method. This involves altering the physical environment of the biomass, and not the microbial environment. As well as fresh biomass, ancient versions of biomass like coal can also be used.

Inside the molecules of the biomass, energy holds the atoms of the molecules together. Breaking the bonds of the atoms releases energy, and breaking the bonds of biomass allows the carbon and hydrogen inside to combine with oxygen in the environment to form commercially useful gases. One of these gases is carbon monoxide (CO,) which contains one carbon and one oxygen. Another is carbon dioxide (CO2), which has another oxygen atom. The last useful gas is hydrogen, which just contains hydrogen atoms.

To get energy release the biomass must be subjected to physical pressures that help break the bonds of the atoms. Raising the temperature, or applying high pressure to the biomass are ways in which syngas producers make the desired gas. This process is also known as gasification. Potential uses for syngas include fuel for power plants, or as raw materials for industries such as the petrochemical field.

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      Scientist with beakers