Out of the Garbage Can and Into the Fire

- by Mike Ewall

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"393","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"260","style":"width: 267px; height: 260px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"267"}}]]So-called “waste-to-energy” (WTE) is usually a euphemism for trash incineration, disposing of waste while making modest amounts of electricity and sometimes steam for heating purposes. Now, waste-to-fuels (WTF?) — turning waste into liquid fuels for transportation — is starting to emerge as a subset of WTE.

Noting their acronym problem, the industry has redubbed itself from “W2F” to “waste conversion.” These waste conversion facilities would turn such things as trash, sewage sludge, tires, plastics, organic wastes, or agricultural wastes into liquid fuels such as ethanol, diesel fuel or other fuels and chemicals.

Fifteen years ago, several companies tried to get into the trash-to-ethanol business, but couldn’t get off the ground. One company president told us that everyone wanted to be the first to invest in the second facility. It didn’t help that the leading company in the field, Pencor-Masada Oxynol, got as far as getting permits for a facility in Middletown, NY to turn trash and sewage sludge into ethanol, then financially collapsed.

In the past few years a resurgence of proposals, spurred by government incentives, is starting to gain ground. The industry is holding annual “waste conversion” conferences, and the chemical industry trade association giant, the American Chemistry Council, is pushing any sort of “plastics-to-energy” technologies that it can, even daring to call it “renewable.”

The Municipal Solid Waste to Biofuels and Bio-Products Summit held on October 6-7, 2014 and February 20-21, 2013 in Orlando, Florida, is touted by its host, Advanced Biofuels USA, as a place to “receive leading waste and biofuels market intelligence and analysis from the very best in the business.”

The annual conference is an informational and networking smorgasbord geared towards helping industry players “penetrate the high energy value of the municipal solid waste stream.” The conference is attended by biofuels and chemicals producers, developers, and stakeholders, investors and financial institutions, government agencies, and multinational consumer product companies.

If you ever wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes in the emerging waste-to-fuels industry, your wish has been granted.

Driving that Train

Biofuels are projected to increase 127% over the next decade, according to projections from Mike Hart, CEO of Sierra Energy Corp. The U.S. consumed roughly 212 billion gallons of liquid fuels in 2011 and 1 billion tons of waste materials would amount to about 65 billion gallons, one-third of the total demand, according to Brian Duff, Chief Engineer of the Bioenergy Technologies Office, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Mackinnon Lawrence, research analyst with Pike Research, predicts 47 billion gallons of waste-to-fuels per year by 2022, which would make up 50% of the U.S. government’s biofuels mandate. The global market for waste-to-energy technologies could reach $29.2 billion by 2022.

If this seems like pie-in-the-sky optimism intended to convince investors to pony up the big bucks for this dubious technology, you may be right. But never underestimate the power of taxpayer-funded government handouts.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that requires blending ethanol into conventional gasoline stocks.  The requirement was expanded from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022, with most of that increase being from advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and waste-based fuels.

EPA proposals for RFS 2014 involved 15.21 billion gallons of renewable fuels (ethanol and non-ethanol), 2.2 billion gallons of advanced biofuels (municipal solid waste, i.e. trash), 1.28 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel, and 17 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol (plants and trees).

A short, but by no means complete, list of taxpayer money funding biofuels, including trash to fuels, involve grants and loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, including the Integrated Biorefineries Grant Program, and USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program.

Meanwhile, the U.S government’s 1603 program provides developers of “renewable” energy, including biofuels, “cash payments in lieu of investment tax credits.” The alternative fuel mixture credit is the “product of 50 cents and the number of gallons of alternative fuel…in producing any alternative fuel mixture for sale or use in a trade or business.”

War is another driver of biofuels, more specifically the Department of Defense (DOD), which uses 300,000 barrels of oil per day (5 billion gallons per year), 80% of what’s consumed by the entire U.S. government, according to Duff from the Department of Energy. DOD spent $13.4 billion on energy in 2009, with 56% of the agency’s energy consumption in consisting of aviation fuel.

The Air Force is shooting to fuel half its aircraft with 50% alternative fuels by 2016, while the Navy wants to cut its petroleum use in half by then.

When it comes to industry and consumer use, cars, trucks, ships and trains consumed 212 billion gallons in 2011, with gas at 131 billion gallons, diesel at 3.849 million gallons.

22 billion gallons of jet fuel was burned in 2011. Commercial airplanes must now be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fly into the European Union or be forced to purchase allowances, according to the Department of Energy.

All of the above ensure a future for trash to fuels.

How it Works

Things aren’t as far along as the municipal solid waste (trash) to biofuels industry had hoped they’d be by now. However, there are several patented processes for producing fuel in existence with plans for more, lab scale demonstration units and pilot plants under development, and a few operational pilot plants.

However, none have “scaled up the technology to a size that allows for a processing of MSW equitable to that of a small landfill (75 tons MSW/day) or larger,” according to Doug Maine and Paul Warley of Deloitte Financial Advisory Services.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the cellulosic ethanol technologies used to turn plastics and organic materials into fuels:

·      Biological approach (cellulolysis):

o   Acid hydrolysis – a concentrated acid is used to break down organic matter before fermenting it into ethanol

o   Enzymatic hydrolysis – enzymes, microbes or fungi are used to break down organic matter before fermentation. Genetically-engineered enzymes are increasingly sought for this task.

·      Thermochemical approach (gasification/pyrolysis):

o   High temperatures and pressure are used to turn the materials into a gas called “syngas” and a solid slag residue akin to incinerator ash. Usually this is followed by burning the gas, in which case, the facility would be considered to be an incinerator. However, for making liquid fuels, this “syngas” is then converted into liquid fuels, either through a fermentation process or a gas-to-liquids process known as Fischer-Tropsch.

Thermoselect is one of many companies pursuing waste-to-fuels. They’ve been quite controversial, having been fought off in California and having one of their trash gasification incinerators shut down for financial and technical reasons in Germany. Their technology involves an industrial chemical process using high temperature gasification technology. The EPA defines gasification as the conversion of “carbon-containing materials…into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas.” This gas can then be “converted into usable products such as hydrogen, steam, electricity, ammonia, and other chemicals.”

Thermoselect also uses pyrolysis, a process that takes hazardous organic materials and converts them into “gaseous components, small quantities of liquid, and a solid residue (coke) containing fixed carbon and ash,” according to the Federal Remediation Technologies Roundtable.

Thermoselect combines waste compaction using automobile presses, pyrolysis, gasification, and a water and gas cleaning system typically used in chemical plants, with the gaseous end product used to generate electricity or to manufacture fuels, according to James J. Binder, of Frank Campbell.

Gasification “expands feedstock possibilities” to include municipal solid waste, medical waste, automotive shredder residues, and hazardous waste, according to Sierra Energy Corp’s Mike Hart.

Waste to syngas technologies can make use of genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, according to Damien Perriman of Genomatica Sustainable Chemicals.

The merger between Butylfuel and Green Biologics in 2001 resulted in production of n-butanol by fermentation, which is a direct drop in for petroleum based butanol, said Joel Stone of Green Biologics.

Other processes include Electrochaea, which involves natural gas and a reverse combustion engine based on biological catalyst and CO2, according to Duke Leahey of Nidus Partners. There is a currently a 2-megawatt demonstration project in operation in Denmark.

Thermaquatica is a technology that produces chemical feedstocks and liquid fuels from non-oil raw materials, which is thought to be lower cost than other methods.

Khosla Ventures has a gas fermentation technology that “captures CO-rich gases and converts the carbon to fuels and chemicals,” said Jared Gonsky, LanzaTech.

Most major airlines have signed onto Solena Fuels’ platform to purchase “sustainable,” fuels to be used as a drop-in substitute for oil manufactured using the Fischer-Tropsch process, which involves the “conversion of synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, into a mixture of high-value hydrocarbons and their derivatives…and some by-products such as water and CO2,” according to the 2010 study Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis.

Solena is converting biomass using gasification followed by Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids technology.

Thermal depolymerization is yet another process that seeks to turn “anything into oil” in a pyrolysis process that has been used by (now-bankrupt) Changing World Technologies. They had a commercial plant processing turkey guts in Carthage, Missouri, which was shut down for odor problems at one point. They’ve also tested a wide range of wastes and fuels in a pilot plant in Philadelphia.

Fuel ‘Er Up

The world’s municipal solid waste (MSW) feedstock is large enough to displace oil, crowed Jim Macias Fulcrum Bioenergy. Yet this is easier said than done, with fuel preparation being one of the main challenges, varying as it does from location to location, region to region and sometimes seasonally, according to Jeff Wolfe of VecoPlan.

MSW tends to be generated in much higher quantities in the richer parts of the world. The U.S. is in first place at 685,000 tons per day, with China in second place at 521,000 tons. One ton of trash is potentially forty-two gallons of fuel, said Sierra Energy Corp’s Mike Hart.

Advanced fuel feedstocks range from MSW to vegetable oils, forest and agricultural byproducts, fats, oils and algae-based oils, according to Doug Main and Paul Warley of Deloitte Financial Advisory Services.

Moisture content is always a concern, and storage and the way waste is picked up and handled can make a “noticeable difference” in moisture percentage, which is partially based on whether or not organics remain in the waste, said Wolfe.

Additionally, MSW often has hazardous materials, including batteries, mercury thermometers, and lead paint, according to Jim Macias of Fulcrum Bioenergy.

Sugars are key to “superior performance,” according to Joel Stone of Green Biologics, which include molasses, corn stover, hardwood pulp, and sugar cane.

Diversion, which includes recycling, composting, and conversion is up 400% since 1985, while landfill volumes are down 2%, said Roy Johnston, Waste Management, Inc. Landfill volume declined 4% between 2005-2010 alone while total waste generation has declined for the first time since 1960. At 4.43 lbs/person/day, per capita MSW is below 1990 levels, said Johnston.

On the Ground

In 2012, Fiberight commissioned a “first of its kind” integrated plant to convert MSW into cellulosic ethanol in Blairstown, Iowa, according to Craig Stuart Paul, Fiberight. Delays have resulted in the facility still not breaking ground, as of February 2015.

Fiberight also aims to build plants in Hampden, ME and Elkridge, MD, and aims to produce 700 million gallons of ethanol from trash over ten years.

Fulcrum Bioenergy has a project under construction in Reno, NV to produce 10 million gallons of diesel fuel from trash using a thermochemical process and Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids technology.  They also have plans for plants in Denver, Toronto, San Francisco, and Vancouver, and “feedstock control” at 19 sites around the U.S. A demo facility in Durham, North Carolina used gasification to produce ethanol jet fuel and diesel, according to Jim Macias, Fulcrum Bioenergy president.

INEOS’s Indian River Bioenergy Centerin Vero Beach, Florida is one of the newest plants to try to turn trash into ethanol. They aim to produce 8 million gallons of advanced biofuels per year from a variety of feedstocks including trees and crops.  

Demonstrating in Sacramento, CA since 2009, Renewable Energy Testing Center has a commercial prototype gasifier.

At the Sacramento Airport waste to diesel via Fischer-Tropsch process netted 42 gallons of diesel, according to Mike Hart from Sierra Energy Corp.

In Dec 2012, over 2,000 tons of bio-based 1,4-butanediol (BDO) was produced in a five week campaign, according to Damien Perriman of Genomatica Sustainable Chemicals.

Enerkem has a full-scale trash-to-ethanol facility using gasification that is soon to start trial testing in Edmonton, Alberta. It would be the “first industrial scale waste-to-biofuels facility in the world to turn household garbage into biofuels and biochemicals.”

Enerkem’s Pontotoc, Mississippi trash-to-ethanol proposal is selected to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Agriculture (USDA), while Varennes, Quebec is planning the integration of an existing, first-generation ethanol plant and a new cellulosic ethanol facility, said Tim Cesarek of Enerkem. The Pontotoc project is apparently stalled because the waste disposal cost can’t compete with cheap landfilling in the area.


The industry has a lot of money available and impetus to make it successful, yet even insiders admit there are many obstacles and limitations standing in the way.

Main concerns, according to Mike Hart of Sierra Energy Corp, include hazardous ash pollutants, dioxins, low electrical efficiency, and “public outrage.”

Gasification limitations include scalability issue and the high start up cost for complex parts, according to Hart, which reduces profitability.    

In order to get facilities off the ground, complex partnerships are required, according to Mackinnon Lawrence of Pike Research. Additional challenges include waste composition being highly varied country-to-country and conversion processes not yet proven at scale.

Further, getting the permits for plants to deal with waste isn’t easy and involves a great deal of review, along with political input and public discussions.

MSW is the least homogenous of all biomass feedstocks and can contain hazardous materials, which can create harmful compounds when gasified, said Jared Gonsky, LanzaTech.

Duff of the Department of Energy said that the main obstacles for biofuels, including MSW to fuels, aren’t matters of technology but finances. It’s been very difficult to obtain private sector debt financing, which is tied directly into a lack of federal energy policies.

Commercial banks have limited funding after the Great Recession and there is a great deal of risk for investors to get involved.

Investors have a tendency to stay in the comfort zone and let others go first. It’s necessary to get buy in from relevant stakeholders, including elected officials, said Charlie Reighart, Recycling & Waste Prevention Manager, Baltimore County, Maryland.

Additionally, another challenge is “volatile oil prices that create a moving target for price competitiveness,” according to Doug Main and Paul Warley of Deloitte Financial Advisory Services.