Corn Was Only the Beginning: Turning Waste Into Fuel

New technologies are converting municipal waste into ethanol or methanol for fuel. Several companies have made arrangements with local municipal waste-collection services, and full-scale commercial facilities are under construction. The technology has been worked out in pilot projects already. The trash is delivered to the alcohol plant instead of the landfill. The garbage is then converted into alcohol fuel and electricity. The result is far less trash ending up in landfills.

The first large-scale commercial waste-to-ethanol facility that received registration from the EPA to produce cellulosic ethanol from non-food waste materials just opened in Vero Beach, Florida this year. As I’m writing this, the facility is up and running, producing electricity from yard and other vegetative wastes, and agricultural wastes. And by the end of this year or early next year, it will be producing ethanol fuel too. It’s expected to produce six megawatts of power and eight million gallons of ethanol per year — out of garbage that would have been dumped in a landfill.

Scientists presented themselves with this challenge: Find a way to turn a non-food material that is abundantly available into fuel and electricity without polluting the atmosphere. And they’ve done it.

The new facility (called Ineos Bio) uses a process called gasification, which heats up the garbage to 800 degrees Celsius, creating what is called synthesis gas, or “syngas.” The heat breaks material down to core elements — hydrogen, carbon dioxide, etc. — and then Ineos Bio adds a naturally-occurring bacteria that is able to quickly ferment the hot gases into ethanol.

It requires fuel to get the process started, but after that, it is self-sustaining. In other words, the heat causes new garbage to burn, which causes more heat, so they can keep shoveling in garbage, and it keeps burning, keeping the temperature where they need it without having to add any other heat source except the garbage itself.

Excess heat from this process is fed to a steam turbine, which produces electricity, powering the facility, and producing excess, which is put onto the local electricity grid, powering an estimated 1,400 homes.

As Jim Lane, the editor of Biofuels Digest wrote, “It’s taking landfill and turning it from a problem into an economic opportunity, and that’s good for Ineos, but it’s also good for Vero Beach. They’re on the verge of becoming Florida’s largest energy exporter, and that’s a unique position for a small town.”

The construction, engineering, and manufacturing of the Ineos Bio facility created 400 jobs. And it now has 60 full-time employees.

Every city should do this with their trash — make fuel from the local garbage. As the Fuel Freedom Foundation’s co-founder Yossie Hollander quipped, the U.S. is “the Saudi Arabia of garbage.” According to EF123, an energy funding company that specializes in waste-to-energy developments, the average American throws away about five pounds of trash per day!

Another similar facility is under construction in Carson City by Fulcrum Sierra Biofuels. They’ve got a twenty-year contract with Waste Management and Waste Collections Inc. to pick up the garbage and bring it to their facility, which will then be sorted to remove recyclable material like cans, bottles, plastics and paper. It will then annually convert what’s left — 147,000 tons of municipal solid waste — into ten million gallons of ethanol. It is scheduled to be up and running in 2015.

Still another company in Montreal “makes ethanol from old utility poles and household garbage,” says Matthew Wald, a green energy writer for the New York Times. The same company (Enerkem) just received a loan guarantee to build a similar plant in Tupelo, Mississippi which will consume 100,000 tons of garbage per year, transforming it into methanol. The methanol can then be converted to ethanol, or sold directly to American drivers as methanol for their cars if cars were warranted for it (the Methanol Institute is working on that).

Enerkem not only gets the feedstock (garbage) for free, they are actually getting paid to dispose of the garbage, making its feedstock what the company calls “cost-negative.” The feedstock is readily available in abundant, uninterrupted supplies, and the infrastructure already exists to collect and deliver the “feedstock.”

According to chemical engineering researchers at Fayetteville, Arkansas, 70% of municipal solid waste can be used to create fuel. They’re talking about food waste, yard waste, paper, wood, and textiles. What can not be converted to fuel can be converted to electricity.

Converting this material to fuel and power is doubly beneficial, because when garbage is taken to a landfill, it’s broken down by microbes into methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, which rises to the surface and then into the atmosphere. The syngas production process prevents this from happening. The process is able to use about 90% of the waste stream, and produces minimal emissions.

If you ever hear about a local proposal for such a thing, lend your support. These projects often need support because they are routinely opposed. One recent project proposal in Chicago, for example, faced strong opposition from the county dump (the landfill) because, of course, the dump would lose a lot of business when the new ethanol plant opens (people pay to dump their stuff at landfills).

There was enough public support, however, and the ethanol plant is proceeding. Lend your support to such projects when you can.

This is one of the most important things we can do: Turn solid waste that would have gone into a landfill into fuel. Would you like to see more investments in waste-to-fuel facilities? All that’s missing is a rapidly growing demand for ethanol and investors will line up to put their money down. It is a potentially very profitable enterprise. The facility gets the feedstock for free, or the company could even be paid to take it.

Let’s encourage this kind of investment by creating a strong and growing demand for ethanol fuel. Here's how to convert your car immediately and begin the fuel competition revolution right where you are: Convert your car.

- Excerpted from the book, Fill Your Tank With Freedom.

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