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Waste to Energy Companies - 2012 survey

Updated on December 7, 2011
There's a lot of potential energy being discarded today.
There's a lot of potential energy being discarded today.

Renewable technologies, including solar, wind, tidal/wave and geothermal, seek to capture the plentiful forms of energy that are currently being frittered away by Mother Nature. A few technologies, though, are seeking to turn lead to gold, figuratively speaking; they're finding ways to capture the energy in the stuff we discard and transform it into fuel that we can use.

A friend of a friend of mine who worked at Changing World Technologies first exposed me to this idea a few years ago. Using a process called thermo depolymerization (TDP), primarily organic feedstocks (like turkey offal) can be processed to yield fuel oil. Its first plant converts 250 tons of turkey waste into 20,000 gallons of oil and fertilizer (the nitrogen-based by-products of the process), at a cost of $80 per barrel. Keep in mind that petroleum (Brent crude) is currently selling at over $100 per barrel.

Innovation in the world of waste has continued. Here are a few other companies I was able to find that are innovating in this space:

  • Enertech Environmental: Converts sewage into a solid energy form (called SlurryCarb) that can be used in a manner similar to coal. The process removes the bulk of the water through a more efficient mechanical process, rather than boiling/evaportation. A plant coming online later this year in southern California will convert solid waste from 5 municipalities around Rialto into 145 tons of SlurryCarb daily. An existing company facility has been operating successfully in Japan for years.
  • Solena Group: Uses sodium bicarbonate, a waste by-product from coal plants, to grow algae, which is gasified to create a feedstock for electric power plants. The company is in discussion to put up a 40 MW plant in Kansas using its technology.
  • GreenFuel Technologies: Also grows algae for biofuel, although using CO2 from flue gases. Companies that would otherwise have to pay for the sequestration of CO2 can, according to the company, create a profit by growing algae and selling it to biofuel reformers. The algae can be converted to biodiesel through transesterification and ethanol through fermentation of the remaining biomass.
  • Blue Marble Energy: Uses algae cultivated in polluted water to create biodiesel and ethanol. Should be a boon for China, which has no shortage of the stuff.
  • BlueFire Ethanol: Converts biowaste to ethanol using concentrated acid hydrolysis. A $30 million plant due to be installed in southern California by the end of 2009 should yield 3.2 million gallons of ethanol annually.
  • Poet Energy: Uses primarily corn cobs to produce ethanol in a low-temperature process. Its 65 million gallon per year plant inaugurated in Indiana last year is the largest ethanol production plant in the world.
  • Coskata: This company's process converts organic feedstocks into syngas via gasification technologies, and then proprietary microbes convert the syngas into ethanol. After proving the viability of its technology through a 40,000 gallon/yr plant early next year, it plans on scaling to a 100 million gallon/year plant elsewhere by 2011.
  • DuPont Danisco: Uses corn stover and sugarcane bagasse, agricultural wasteproducts, to create ethanol. A joint venture between DuPont and Genencor, its 250,000 gallon/year demonstration facility in Tennessee opened in 2010.
  • Mascoma: Uses wood chips as the source of cellulose to produce ethanol. It has recently decided to build its first facility in Michigan, in part funded by the state.
  • International Tech Corp: This Eugene, Oregon, based firm markets a pyrolytic waste-to-energy thermal recovery unit (TRU), that grinds up organic solid or liquid feedstocks and gasified under very high temperature. A video explaining its process is available to the right.
  • GreenLight Energy Solutions: This San Francisco-based company also offers a pyrolysis-based technology that claims to be the only one capable of breaking down carcinogenic dioxins and furans, with conversion in the 90-98% range.

Are flue gas, corn stover, sugarcane bagasse, wood chips, turkey offal, and municipal waste the only feedstocks with which to produce biofuels? Not even close. In fact, a recent study suggests cow manure processed anaerobically could supplant 3% of the US's electricity production and erase 4% of the carbon dioxide which would have otherwise been created by coal-fired production.

I think all of this innovation is fascinating, and deserves the tax incentives they need to get past the very high bar set by the low price of coal (provided there aren't any taxes/penalties assessed on high-CO2 coal use). The products produced recently from solar energy—food scraps, wood chips, algae, sewage, and municipal waste—ought to be recaptured so we can allow coal and petroleum to continue to sequester CO2 underground.


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    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for your comments, guys! Yes, I think it's all very exciting, very promising work, and very important for the future. One thing we can definitely count on having a lot of in the future...and that's garbage! ;)

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      I've always been fascinated by the use of waste products to create fuels. When I volunteered at the American Council for Renewable Energy, I expected to be seeing a lot more discussion about this, but there weren't many promising companies at that point. I'm glad to see that things are changing! The businesses you've profiled, and the things they're doing, are AMAZING!!

      I'm so with you on giving these companies tax breaks and any other incentives that can help them break through. This is so important!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Other countries are so far ahead of the U.S. on alternative fuels that we should be ashamed to call ourselves "leader of the free world". These days we lead in pretty much nothing except sending jobs overseas. Each of these plants is a job creator; we should have many more.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 6 years ago from Central New Jersey

      It's amazing the number of alternatives we have to fossil fuel. I fear we will only get serious about developing them as oil becomes scarce and ever more expensive. When will we ever learn eh? Thanks for a great read

    • Antigua profile image

      Antigua 6 years ago from Antigua

      Interesting article. Another plus to converting the cow manure to fuel, is a reduction in methane gas that would escape to do damage to the ozone layer.

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 6 years ago from Jamaica

      Amazing stuff, really expensive fuel thought at $115 per barrel. I knew of the sewage and sugar cane type bio fuel but the other products are new to me like the turkey and cow wastes.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, GracieLake. Adequate funding for research and scale, and possibly subsidies considering it's clean energy, would help get a lot of these off the ground.

    • GracieLake profile image

      GracieLake 6 years ago from Arizona

      Thanks for posting!Innovative technology and common sense are a great combination. Now, if only we could get policymakers to agree to meaningful support!

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Agreed. Cellulosic ethanol, using corn cobs (after the edible part is shucked off) like Poet Energy is producing, is the wave of the future. Thanks for your comment, thranax!

    • thranax profile image

      Andrew 6 years ago from Rep Boston MA

      Very mind opening. Everyone rich or poor, who know anything about it or not want to get in on stuff like this to become rich. I think this is better then corn fuel because the corn really should be eaten. If someone is hungry then that is not the answer to the fuel crisis. Thanks for sharing these other ways people are discovering and starting to utilize.