Trail-blazing Firms Converting Trash into Treasure

Mankind’s greatest curse – at least since the Cro-Magnon period – has been what to do with the enormous piles of solid waste we generate. Scientists say this wasn’t such a big deal in prehistoric times, because we simply moved our campfire into a new cave upstream after we’d rendered the previous one uninhabitable.

But then we invented agriculture and started paying the price – creating villages, towns, cities and megalopolises – with all the stifling problems from our enormous mounds of solid waste going largely unresolved, but highly noticed.

Now comes a new generation of energy companies who think they’re onto the solution. By using various competing cellulosic refining technologies, they plan to convert municipal solid waste into second-generation liquid fuel with zero toxic greenhouse emissions. Needless to say, we’re all “holding their breath” on this one!

Following a series of encouraging pilot projects, this handful of trail-blazing firms are starting commercial applications in areas scattered about the continent, from Alberta to Mississippi, and from Boston to California. None of them are fully productive, some of them have yet to break ground, and others are awaiting financing – but the goal by all is to turn trash into treasure by using North America’s largest sustainable cellulosic feedstock. It was noted on Earth Day that 510 million tons of urban waste already had been produced this year, most of it winding up in America’s 7,000-plus landfills.

Among the companies in the hunt is BlueFire Ethanol, which has received a $40-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and is in the process of building a $130 biorefinery at a landfill near Lancaster, CA. Another hopeful is Enerkem, a Montreal-based firm that already has a pilot plant in Canada and is in the process of building commercial ethanol ventures at landfills in near Edmonton and at Pontotoc, MS – the latter being a $250-million complex that features a separate recycling center for the incoming municipal, industrial and agriculture waste from a seven-county area.

Others with landfill factories in the pipeline – so to speak – are Coskata, an Illinois start-up that received early financing from General Motors Corp. among others; Fulcrum BioEnergy, with designs for a Sierra BioFuels venture in the Reno-Tahoe area; Plasco Energy Group Inc., which is using a pilot plant in Ottawa for ventures elsewhere in Canada and overseas; and IST Energy of Boston, which is pioneering the use of unique portable “garbage munching” machines.

Dozens of other companies are using similar technologies with feedstocks that include other cellulosic materials along with urban waste, and a number of them have viable pilots that also produce second-generation biofuels – including synthetic gasoline and diesel products. One certainly worth mentioning is Cello Energy, LLC, which actually started production recently near Mobile, AL, in a venture that is tied academically to Auburn University. Another is Sustainable Power Corp. of Baytown, TX, which hopes to produce its own brand of fuel called Vetroleum.

All these ventures are cousins to the more mainstream – and more highly financed – efforts under way by the corporate world, including petroleum giants, to produce sustainable cellulosic fuel from non-food sources like wood chips, switchgrass, corn waste, and so on. The one thing they all have in common is that none has yet proven an efficient conversion technology that is commercially viable – although some think they’re getting very, very close.

One of the biggest problems is the cost of the cellulosic feedstock and its transportation. But this – according to the landfill start-up crowd – is not a problem for them. Civilization already is paying “through the nose” to haul its solid waste to landfills, garbage dumps or burn sites, they argue.

And in fact, there have been many earlier attempts to turn some of the natural greenhouse gases formed by urban waste piles into usable energy. Most of these have used technologies to separate methane gas from the decomposition seeping from landfills. This gas is then sold or combusted to make electrical (sometimes steam) energy for local utilities or manufacturing facilities.

Several corporate leaders have emerged using this approach, among them DTE Biomass Energy of Ann Arbor, MI, which has state-of-the-art energy recovery partnerships in at least 14 states – some even at abandoned coal mines – all of them reducing hazardous emissions, producing energy and generating revenue. DTE’s effort in Los Angeles (since 2002) produces 11.5 million cubic feet of gas per day!

The difference, of course, is that the newer technology would grind up the urban waste and convert it to energy before it decomposes, with up to 95% efficiency according to some early specs, and with the remaining 5% also usable for other manufacturing projects – eliminating the need altogether for landfills!

Hey, it’s Earth Month! We can dream, can’t we?

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