Federal cash sparks push to turn trash into liquid fuel

Source: Nathanial Gronewold, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 23, 2012

BRYAN, Texas — A federally funded energy experiment unfolding at an industrial site on the outskirts of this city aims to turn trash into jet fuel.

The project — backed by a $9.6 million grant from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — aims to learn whether large quantities of liquid fuel can be made affordably from food waste and other organic garbage. The goal is to produce 6,000 liters, or 1,585 gallons, of jet fuel.

“We’re focusing just on food scraps,” said John Tjaden, who manages the facility here for Terrabon Inc. The company is collecting waste from local stores of two supermarket chains and some hospitals, he said, and breaking down, cleaning and processing that mess until it is nearly identical to the gasoline that goes into an automobile.

The Terrabon facility is running at a small scale, Tjaden said, but next year the company and its major partner, Waste Management Inc. — the country’s largest garbage hauler — plan to expand the site with a goal of making commercial sales of its advanced biofuels by 2014.

Waste Management’s entry into the project last year turned Terrabon’s effort upside down. As Tjaden explained, his company’s original goal was to buy sorghum and turn it into biofuels. But Waste Management encouraged it to abandon that plan in favor of processing organic trash.

The trash giant has been creeping into the energy business since the 1980s, company officials say, when it began using its landfills to produce electricity from methane gases they generate. Most recently the company began partnering with smaller firms to transform the garbage it is paid to haul away into compost that would be sold.

But it is the idea of turning garbage into liquid fuel that really excites Waste Management.

“When you think about it, a landfill is a less-than-efficient converter to methane,” said Carl Rush, senior vice president of the company’s Organic Growth unit. “There are probably ways to better convert that material, more efficient ways to convert all of the potential waste material to methane rather than just a landfill. So starting there we tried to work up the scale and say, ‘What are those? Is it digestion, is it fermentation, is it thermal chemical, what are the various ways to do that?'”

That led to his company’s investment with Terrabon, which found switching from sorghum to food trash posed no problem. The switch freed the company from having to worry about procuring enough feedstock in volatile commodity markets.

Terrabon was also able to fix a problem for Waste Management that other startup biofuel companies cannot, Tjaden said.

“We can deal with the waste, the wet material,” he said. “The hard thing for Waste Management is all the wet material, because you have to get rid of all that water. Well heck, we use that water and recycle around in a loop inside of our process.”

On average, food scraps, cellulosic material and other feedstock they handle yield 70 percent water and 30 percent solids, Tjaden said. Water is recycled into the front end of the process to help with the bacterial breakdown and fermentation process, he said.

Waste Management spokesman Wes Muir said the company cannot yet say what the ultimate commercial potential is for converting garbage into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. But the potential, he says, is probably great.

Muir estimates that last year his company handled about 110 million tons of garbage with 92 million tons diverted to landfills and about 7.5 million used for energy production, mainly in incinerators producing electricity.

Of the 100 million or so tons handled each year, the company figures 30 percent is viable for the type of operation being run by Terrabon with another 30 percent being paper, cardboard or other cellulosic waste that could be also converted to liquid energy.

With Waste Management already working to convert its 18,300 vehicles to natural gas, Muir said the company is no stranger to biofuels.

“About 2,000 of our vehicles are running on biodiesel, a blend of anywhere from B2 to B20” — fuels with 2 percent or 20 percent biofuels, Muir said.

That experience, he said, helped nudge the company further toward exploring liquid fuel production as a business venture.

Another Waste Management partner, Agilyx of Beaverton, Ore., is working to commercialize a technique for transforming discarded plastics back into their original source material, crude oil.

Waste Management’s Rush said the resulting crude is almost indistinguishable from what’s pulled out of the ground and can be easily handled by refineries. French oil and gas giant Total SA is also an investor in Agilyx, a further sign of confidence in its emerging technology.

“They can yield about five barrels of oil per ton of plastic,” Rush said.

Demonstration projects proliferate

Waste Management is the largest solid waste company eager to get in on the liquid fuels business, but others are beginning to follow.

“There’s been a lot of interest in using waste as … an organic source to generate liquid fuels,” said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, or SWANA. “I think a lot of that is being driven by some of the renewable fuel requirements, especially at the federal government level.”

The Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture and Navy are planning to spend up to $510 million through 2014 on the research and development of advanced alternative biofuels of the sort Terrabon is manufacturing for aviation, marine transportation and other military applications.

O’Brien said many garbage-to-biofuel projects — the trade group found eight in North American during a study last year — are receiving some assistance from DOE, sometimes “significant chunks of money from the federal government.”

Aside from Agilyx and Terrabon, Canadian firm Enerkem is another example of the trend.

Enerkem says it is building its first commercial-scale waste-to-biofuel plant outside Edmonton, Alberta. Waste Management, Valero Energy Corp., and the U.S. and Canadian governments are listed among its partners in that venture.

While the technologies are promising, O’Brien said, companies are just trying to get around some obstacles.

A main impediment is the cost-benefit calculation for such projects.

It is still cheaper and easier in North America for companies to haul trash to landfills. So it takes special incentives to persuade companies to invest in waste to energy, even though it can yield a larger per-ton profit, O’Brien said.

“There’s a lot of interest, but worldwide we’re just starting to try to demonstrate the technologies that can be used to do this in North America,” he said.

SWANA estimates that about 40 companies are creeping into the waste-to-fuel market worldwide.

“The stuff we’re doing is nascent,” Waste Management’s Rush said. “We are only now starting to see some technologies approach commercialization. The real prize is when you can start diverting more and more materials.”

At Terrabon’s plant here, Tjaden doesn’t see any problem with getting feedstock. The potential sources are as varied as they are enormous, he said.

“We’re getting all the corn husks and stuff like that from the grocery stores that are husking all the corn to put out on the shelves,” Tjaden said. “We’re getting all the pineapple tops. When it’s crawfish season, we get tons of crawfish out here, all the little leftover shells. … After Halloween we get pumpkins galore, tons and tons of pumpkins. So it’s very seasonal.”