Even though the price of natural gas is at historic lows, a cleaner option that can compete economically could be on the horizon, according to a recent study from the University of Minnesota. Instead of burning biomass to produce heat for the process, a new method would use a concentrated solar cell to produce the necessary thermal energy. This would allow all of the biomass to be converted into synthesis gas, which can be used like natural gas.
The study, published in Biomass and Bioenergy, developed a metric to determine the financial feasibility of using the new process and find the breakeven price at which the new syngas could be sold profitably. According to the findings, the solar-heated biomass gasification systems could compete with natural gas prices of $4.04-$10.90 per gigajoule, depending on the specific configurations of the energy production process. Though there are currently no commercial power plants using the model, the technologies are being developed at the Solar Energy Laboratory at the University of Minnesota.
“With average U.S. natural gas prices at $4.80 per gigajoule in 2014, two of the four configurations modeled were economically competitive,” says Timothy Smith, co-author of the study.