Turning Trash into Cash: Bioproducts Make 2018 CleanTech Headlines

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The saying is, “You can’t polish a turd.” Or can you? As humans create more waste each year and the drive toward sustainability reaches every small town and village, a circular economy of waste becomes prudent. Renewable products are created from waste, and the industry keeps growing as it increasingly makes more financial sense. As Haruki Murakami said in the novel, Norwegian Wood“It’s easy to talk big, but the important thing is whether or not you clean up the shit.”

A whole slew of companies is turning trash into cash by targeting a variety of waste types, including household garbage (plastics and organics) as well as agricultural waste (like wood) and livestock waste (like manure). Waste is then converted into bioproducts, including synthetic crude oil, natural gas, electricity, refined products (from diesel to high-value waxes), and specialty chemicals.

Image courtesy of energy.gov

Bioproducts are materials, chemicals, and energy derived from renewable biological resources. Examples of emerging bioproducts include biofuels, bioenergy, starch-based and cellulose-based ethanol, bio-based adhesives, biochemicals, and bioplastics. Bioproducts have never been more in the news than in 2018, due to the price of traditional petroleum-based products, the environmental impact of petroleum use, and an interest from many countries to become independent from foreign sources of oil. Bioproducts derived from bioresources can replace many of the fuels, chemicals, and plastics that are currently derived from petroleum.

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The US Department of Energy outlines how the production of bioproducts relies on much of the same feedstocks, infrastructure, feedstock commoditization, and technologies that are central to biofuels production. For example, cellulosic sugars are an intermediate for manufacturing either biofuel or bioproducts. Due to their similarities, the knowledge gained from producing bioproducts can be readily transferred to biofuels, and bioproducts can be a means to develop the platform technologies potentially leading to fuels.


Why Waste is Turning Green

Rising populations, urban density, and environmental concerns have caused problems for landfills. For example, China — which recycles nearly half of the globe’s waste — banned the import of certain plastics, as well as 23 other waste products. What happened to that waste? It’s overflowing in landfills in Australia and Great Britain and beyond. And a new industry has entered the green scene: landfill mining, which is a tool to achieve an enhanced circular economy model.

We can view the landfill waste as a potential resource instead of as a problem, though, says Yahya Jani, a researcher who specializes in environmental science and chemical engineering. “More than 50% of the deposited waste dumped at landfills and open dump sites can be recycled as energy or reused as raw materials. These materials can be used as secondary resources in different industries instead of being forgotten or viewed as garbage,” Jani explains.

According to the European commission in 2017, 60% (that is to say, 1,800 million tons) of the annually produced waste from 500 million EU inhabitants end up in landfills. So, with more pressure on these systems around the world, waste disposal has increased in value, making waste-to-product facilities and technologies more economically attractive to developers.


What’s Happening in the Bioproduct Sphere?

About 14 billion tons of biomass/year are produced in agricultural cycles, and of this nearly 12 billion tons/year are essentially discharged as waste. Significant developments are taking place across the waste-to-fuel and waste-to-product industries, in the form of thermal — pyrolysis, hydrothermal, gasification — and non-thermal technologies.

  • Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere. It involves the change of chemical composition and is most commonly applied to the treatment of organic materials. Pyrolysis of organic substances produces volatile products and leaves a solid residue enriched in carbon, called char. Extreme pyrolysis, which leaves mostly carbon as the residue, is called carbonization.
  • Hydrothermal synthesis introduces solubility of minerals in hot water under high pressure. Crystal growth is performed in an apparatus consisting of a steel pressure vessel called an autoclave, in which a nutrient is supplied along with water. At the hottest end of a growth chamber, the nutrient solute dissolves, while at the cooler end it is deposited on a seed crystal, growing the desired crystal.
  • Gasification is a set of chemical reactions that uses limited oxygen to convert a carbon-containing feedstock into a synthetic gas, or syngas. It uses only a tiny amount of oxygen, which is combined with steam and cooked under intense pressure. This initiates a series of reactions that produces a gaseous mixture composed primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

Many bioproduct startups have been tackling waste conversion. Companies in the space can be divided between the developers like Fulcrum BioEnergy, Red Rock Biofuels, and RES Polyflow, to name a few, and the technology providers, such as TCG, Velocys, Green Biologics, and others.

Bioproduct Developers in the News

  • Fulcrum BioEnergy creates low-carbon, low-cost, transportation fuels from one of our nation’s most abundant resources – household garbage. Recognizing the US fundamental problem of too much garbage and utilizing trash as a feedstock, Fulcrum is diverting large volumes of waste from local landfills and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80%. Its process begins with the gasification of the organic material in the MSW feedstock to a syngas) which consists primarily of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. This syngas is purified and processed through the Fischer-Tropsch process to produce a syncrude product, which is then upgraded to jet fuel or diesel.
  • Red Rock Biofuels (RRB) produces drop-in, renewable, low-carbon jet and diesel fuels. Since airlines are actively seeking low-carbon jet fuel to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the civil aviation industry alone will require ~1.5 billion gallons per year of new renewable jet fuel production capacity to meet this commitment. RRB is building biorefineries to convert waste woody biomass into renewable jet and diesel fuels. The company uses the Fischer-Tropsch process at the biomass scale with forest and sawmill residues.
  • RES Polyflow’s patented energy recovery technology thermally deconstructs hydrocarbon based materials such as end of life plastic and rubber and converts it into new molecular structures that can be marketed as transportation fuels as well as feedstocks for new polymer production. The process works in a low temperature environment at atmospheric pressure and does not require a catalyst. A continuous feed material conveyance system allows for stable and predictable production cycles. End-product process equipment consists of various distillation and treatment stages that separate the liquid output into a variety of market ready fuel and aromatic components.

Bioproduct Technology Providers in the News

  • TGG Global designs, builds, sells, owns, and operates gasification plants capable of converting any carbon-containing feedstock such as biomass, coal, petroleum coke, or municipal solid waste into synthesis gas (Syngas), consisting primarily of hydrogen (H) and carbon monoxide (CO). The Syngas produced by this gasification process is a clean, dry, flexible fuel which can be (1) burned to create heat and electricity, (2) passed through any of several different catalysts to produce fluids such as alcohols and transportation fuels, including clean burning diesel, or (3) used to supply pure hydrogen gas for multiple applications.
  • Velocys aims to develop a succession of biorefineries to make renewable jet fuel and diesel for a rapidly growing and legally mandated market. Its biorefineries will convert residues from forestry operations into renewable transportation fuels in a process that makes diesel and jet fuel through gasification and catalytic synthesis. The main chemical process is called the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process. Its experience ranges from smaller scale microchannel FT technology.
  • Green Biologics makes renewable specialty chemicals and formulated products that are used by manufacturers in the fast moving consumer goods and industrial product sectors to make high performing products from renewable sources. Its 100% renewable n-butanol and acetone technology is used in a range of performance-based markets and applications including specialty coatings, personal care, food, pharma, nutraceuticals, consumer fuels, and plastics.


Household Name Brands are Turning to Bioproducts

In the 20th century, several companies looked at the concept of converting waste to bioproducts. The infrastructures envisioned then, however, were so costly that they never became mainstream. Today, rather than building $10 billion refineries, developers like Fulcrum BioEnergy or Red Rock Biofuels are looking at $100 million to $500 million in capital expenditure projects — still large sums for a startup. They are taking these systems initially developed for coal processing and using them for all kinds of waste, from household trash to wood to manure. These are smaller-scale systems that fit more specific needs for specific customers and geographies.

In addition, some companies are becoming investors or buyers of the end product. For example, airlines (United, Cathay, JetBlue, Southwest, Qantas, British Airlines, Canada Air) are investing in and buying biofuels because of international policy requirements. Grocers (Whole Foods, Tyson) and food and beverage companies (Coca-Cola) are also looking for sustainable waste disposal, packaging and reduction of their environmental footprint.

Support and demand for these technologies and processes are accelerating as stakeholders from across the marketplace align to bring these projects to life. Moreover, because of the local and regional nature of these projects, it is unlikely for global forces to derail progress.

Overall, though, given renewed corporate interest in biofuels, new sources of financing, and new feedstock and regional focuses, we may soon see a quiet boom in renewable biofuels and products.

Photo by Dean Hochman on Foter.com / CC BY and by Photo by The U.S. National Archives on Foter.com

Photo on Foter.com

Shout out to TechCrunch for their great reporting.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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