By Paul Tullis, Source: The New York Times
THERE is an indisputable elegance to the idea of transforming garbage into fuel, of turning icky, smelly detritus into something valuable.
But big drawbacks have prevented the wholesale adoption of trash-to-gas technology in the United States: incineration is polluting, and the capital costs of new plants are enormous. Gasification systems can expend a tremendous amount of energy to produce a tiny amount of electricity. Up to this point, it hasn’t seemed worth the trouble.
Mike Hart thinks that he has solved those problems. In a former Air Force hangar outside Sacramento, his company, Sierra Energy, has spent the last several years testing a waste-to-energy system called the FastOx Pathfinder. The centerpiece, a waste gasifier that’s about the size of a shower stall, is essentially a modified blast furnace. A chemical reaction inside the gasifier heats any kind of trash — whether banana peels, used syringes, old iPods, even raw sewage — to extreme temperatures without combustion. The output includes hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which together are known as syngas, for synthetic gas, and can be burned to generate electricity or made into ethanol or diesel fuel. The FastOx is now being prepared for delivery to Sierra Energy’s first customer: the United States Army.
Ethanol has long been promoted as an alternative fuel that increases energy independence, and federal law requires the use of greater amounts of it. But most ethanol in this country is produced from corn, and many people worry that the mandate is pushing up food prices. Ethanol produced from trash — or agricultural waste, as others are trying — would allay such concerns.
Ineos Bio, a Florida company, announced last month that it had produced ethanol from gasified wood waste, using a method that it expects to be commercially viable, and KiOR Inc. will make one million to two million gallons of diesel and gasoline this year from wood waste at its plant in Columbus, Miss., according to Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association. Mr. Hart said Sierra Energy’s technology should be complementary with the Florida company’s; the FastOx turns all municipal waste, not just wood scraps, into a gas that Ineos Bio could then transform into ethanol.
The FastOx gasifier is the brainchild of two former engineers at Kaiser Steel, patented by the grandson of one of them and commercialized by Mr. Hart. “It’s a modular system that can be dropped into any area,” Mr. Hart said, “using waste where it’s produced to make electricity where it’s used.” Once it’s off the ground, he said, “garbage will be a commodity.”
From concept to construction, the story of the FastOx is of one fortuitous accident after another. And while Sierra Energy has not yet proved to be a successful company — it will be a long while before your garbage is shoveled into a FastOx — its system has become the first waste-to-energy technology acquired by the Defense Department, which paid $3 million for it through an environmental technology program. (The California Energy Commission, which supports renewable energy development in the state, also gave Sierra $5 million, to cover the portion of Sierra’s costs that the Pentagon couldn’t.)
The military is looking for ways to reduce its oil consumption, and to make it easier to supply the front lines with the fuel it uses in all its vehicles and generators. “These days, the supply lines are in the battlefield,” said Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs. “And we consume a lot of fuel, which makes us a big target.”
MIKE HART got into the energy business by way of a train. In 1993, he bought the Sierra Railroad, a small freight and tourism line in Northern California. During the California blackouts of 2001, he had an idea: “As the lights were going out, I realized every one of my locomotives creates 2.1 megawatts of electricity,” he said — enough to power many hundred homes. “It’s a rolling generator, and inexpensive.”
The train-as-power-generator idea never really left the station, but it got Mr. Hart thinking about alternative energy. Then, as part of a settlement after a fuel spill from one of his trains, he promised to convert his trains to nonpolluting biodiesel.
Biodiesel, however, proved hard to find, and Mr. Hart started looking for new ways to source it. In 2002, he was asked to judge an annual business plan competition called the Big Bang, at the University of California, Davis. That’s where he met Chris Kasten.
Mr. Kasten came to the competition with an idea to use a modified blast furnace to turn waste into fuel. His grandfather, Bruce Claflin, a retired chief industrial engineer at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, Calif., had given him the idea.
Kaiser used blast furnaces to make steel, and Mr. Claflin and a colleague, John Jasbinsek, were tasked with finding “a way to make the blast furnace more efficient and less polluting,” said Mr. Jasbinsek, who is now 86.
Like all blast furnaces, Kaiser’s emitted a flue gas out of the top. It occurred to Mr. Clafin and Mr. Jasbinsek that this gas might have value. The two came up with the idea of injecting oxygen, instead of the atmospheric air that steel makers had always used, to create the chemical reaction that heats the inside of the furnace. This would cut pollution while raising the energy content of the flue gas — in essence, giving the steel maker a second product. But pure oxygen made the system too hot, so they added steam. This gave the furnace a third product: hydrogen, which can be used to produce electricity in fuel cells.
After Kaiser decided to close the Fontana plant in 1983, workers were told to toss all demolition debris into the blast furnace. It was then that Mr. Jasbinsek and Mr. Claflin realized that the furnace could take garbage, too. “No matter what they put in, the furnace melted and gasified it,” Mr. Kasten said. This meant a potential fourth revenue stream — from taking municipal waste that would otherwise go to landfills.
When Kaiser wasn’t interested, Mr. Jasbinsek recalled, “we took the idea to other steel companies, too.” But “nobody gave a damn!” he said. “Now there are hardly any steel companies left in the U.S.”
Kaiser Steel went bankrupt in 1987, so the idea belonged to Mr. Jasbinsek and Mr. Claflin. They were nearing retirement, though, so Mr. Claflin told his grandson about it. (Mr. Claflin died before the idea could be commercialized.)
Mr. Kasten’s first fruitful step in developing his grandfather’s idea was meeting with Chris Soderquist, founder of Venture Lab. “When you run a technology incubator, you see a lot of crazy and half-baked ideas,” Mr. Soderquist said. But Mr. Kasten’s was different; Mr. Soderquist could see right away the value of multiple revenue streams.
Gasification is more efficient than incineration and eliminates toxic byproducts that come from burning trash. But it was especially appealing from a business point of view because it relied on a proven technology and used materials in wide abundance: blast furnaces being abandoned as the American steel industry was collapsing.
“What was compelling from the start,” Mr. Soderquist said, “was repurposing existing infrastructure into a generator of clean energy, with a second revenue stream from people paying you to take their waste.”
Mr. Soderquist helped Mr. Kasten prepare for the Big Bang competition. “For a grad school business plan competition, it was quite a plan he presented,” Mr. Soderquist said, and the judges agreed: Mr. Kasten, now 43, won a $2,000 prize.
Mr. Hart, 51, as a competition judge and a serial entrepreneur, was intrigued. He had started his first business at 12, operating a string of candy machines in high schools throughout what would become known as Silicon Valley. Next, while still living at home, he opened a sort of temp agency for teenagers doing odd jobs. There were a lot of other businesses from the late 1970s to 1993, and stints as a developer for Steve Jobs’s company Next, and for Apple. Mr. Hart also did some consulting until he realized that he would make more money buying whatever devalued company he had been hired to help, and turning it around himself. That was when he bought the Sierra Railroad.
Mr. Hart checked out Mr. Kasten’s gasifier and decided to buy the patents. Then he applied to a Pentagon program established to shepherd proven concepts to the production stage. Results at the Defense Department’s testing facility near Sacramento have been promising; after about four hours, one ton of waste creates enough gas to produce 1,580 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which would power an average home in the United States for about a month and a half — at one-third the emissions of coal — and 42 gallons of renewably sourced fuel. And that’s with a 12-ton-a-day gasifier; existing blast furnaces can handle as much as 2,000 tons a day.
Now that the Pentagon is convinced that the FastOx will work as advertised, the system should be providing electricity later this year at Fort Hunter Liggett, a training base in Monterey County, Calif., and fuel for vehicles and generators in early 2014.
“California produces 30 million tons of garbage a year,” Mr. Hart said. “If it decided to turn its waste into clean fuels, at that rate it could meet all its oil consumption needs and still export more fuel than some OPEC members.” That is, if the FastOx can do what no other waste-to-energy gasification technology has done before: take any kind of trash, in any succession, without additional separation or preparation.
Sierra plans to license its technology and to sell systems to make electricity or ethanol from the syngas produced by the FastOx. The first will be small and cost about $3 million. But Mr. Hart said he expects to sell larger systems to municipalities and biofuel makers that will go for much more.
Any waste-to-energy plan, however, must overcome a major hurdle: the wild inconsistency of the waste stream. “Until you’ve demonstrated that you can handle it all, nobody’s interested,” Mr. Hart said. “I can understand it; they’ve heard similar promises before. We’ve got 150 cities, communities and businesses lined up to be Serial No. 2. Nobody wants to be No. 1.”
NOBODY, that is, except the Pentagon. The Defense Department is the country’s largest single consumer of energy, spending $15 billion a year just on fuel.
“The mission drives this,” said Ms. Burke, the assistant defense secretary, “and the mission is inherently energy-intensive.”
The FastOx could reduce the military’s reliance on oil overseas and the grid at home. “I have a $24 million-a-year electric bill at Camp Pendleton” in Southern California, said that Marine base’s commander, Brig. Gen. Vincent A. Coglianese. “If I can reduce that cost, that’s more money I can put into training Marines and sailors.”
Ms. Burke added, “Something for military operations has to be really rugged, deployable, simple to use — all of those things.”
Consultants and municipal sanitation officials who’ve looked at the FastOx say it meets those criteria. John Conger, the acting deputy under secretary of defense for installations and the environment, who oversees management of military bases in the United States, says Sierra Energy’s technology should provide energy security for the military in the event of a blackout and provide budget savings as well.
The military’s cost of petroleum, when the costs of transporting and guarding it are factored in, can run as high as $50 a gallon. Moreover, about half of United States casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2007 were of servicemen and servicewomen moving and protecting fuel convoys, according to an Army report.
The appeal of Mr. Hart’s Pathfinder system is that it would produce fuel on site, eliminating the need to truck in fuel to dangerous military outposts. It would also reduce the need for trash-burning on bases, which creates pollution and noxious odors that have contributed to locals’ distaste for the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, United States forces in Afghanistan are working to close burn pits.
“Waste is a problem,” Ms. Burke said. “So if we could dispose of waste and create energy at the same time, that would be a silver bullet.”