Turning Trash Into Renewable Energy
By Debra Atlas
DAVIS, CALIFORNIA — Can we all agree that using more renewable energy and less oil would be a good thing? Great, and any objections to sending less trash to the landfill? Well Sierra Energy Corp., a recent winner at the Sierra Nevada Innovation Challenge, has developed a system that can help us do both.
With the FastOx process, any form of waste can be heated to 4,000 degrees and then broken down into liquid metal, liquid stone, and syngas— a form of clean energy. Syngas is made up of 70 percent CO and 30 percent Hydrogen. Diesel made from syngas is 20 times cleaner than the California standard. What is more, the gasification process means that nothing needs to go to the landfill.
Gasification itself is not a new technology – it’s been in use commercially for over 30 years. There are three types of waste-to-energy processes in use around the globe:
- Anaerobic digestion, which uses food scraps;
- Mass burn / incineration (to create heat); and
- Plasma gasification, where an electric arc is used to create plasma, which then breaks down the waste.
Hart says that burning waste creates enormous pollution, and that with incineration you get a small amount of energy from what is burned. A significant percentage of what is left is toxic ash with heavy metals and PCB’s, all of which has to be dumped into a landfill, and can leach into groundwater.
“We believe gasification is the right solution,” he says.
Sierra Energy built the first prototype of the FastOx in 2009. Since then, the product has been tested via a simulated acid rain test and has been certified as non-leachable. This means that the liquid stone byproduct can be used as road base on a highway. Another benefit of this process is that gasification creates 5 -10 times the amount of energy from waste as opposed to using incineration.
“You’ve replaced something that ordinarily would cause mining, so it’s a triple environmental benefit,” says Hart.
How Sierra Energy Met FastOx
Sierra Energy CEO Mike Hart first learned of this remarkable device in 2004 at the UC Davis Big Bang Competition, where Hart has served as a judge ever since the event’s inception. FastOx won the People’s Choice Award for Best Environmental Product, and Hart acquired the technology from its inventors. Hart had a unique vision for FastOx that tied in neatly with his other business.
Hart also owns the Sierra Railroad Company, the oldest railroad in California. In 2001, before he acquired FastOx, Hart decided that he wanted to run his locomotives on biodiesel. In 2002, Sierra Railroad became the first U.S. railroad to use this fuel.
Since switching to biodiesel, Hart’s company has both improved the trains’ mileage and engine wear and dramatically reduced its emissions. Sierra Railroad is now building hybrid locomotives. However, Hart saw a problem with the biodiesel: it was a fuel derived from soybean oil, and this simply did not seem sustainable.
“You’re taking food out of people’s mouths,” he explains.
So in 2003, Hart began searching for a way to reduce Sierra Railroad’s dependence on food crops. Then the competition introduced him to FastOx.
Renewable Energy on World Tour
Sierra Energy is now building their first commercial system, which they hope to have up and running sometime next year. Once this small commercial system is proven effective, the team’s hope is that people will see it and decide to bring it to their own community.
Hart believes that every community should be looking for ways to convert some of its waste into energy. The key, he says, is incentive and the technology being used. Hart strongly believes that good technologies should be shared.
Recently, Sierra Energy agreed to donate their technology, at no cost, to all of Africa through The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The technology is also being offered to the Clinton Global Initiative for use in Haiti.
Hart is also teaming up with Dean Kamen, the inventor of Segway scooters, to make clean water and clean energy accessible to some of the poorest communities in the globe. This partnership will allow women in Africa to take garbage and convert it to energy and clean water, so they don’t have to leave their village for either one. This eliminates the danger and physical hardship of women having to walk long distances for firewood and/or water.
The California Energy Commission has agreed to give the young company a $5 million grant which hopefully will allow them to build their first commercial system by next year.
“We as a society need a transition technology to take us into the future. An inexpensive technology that doesn’t require massive investment, that pays for itself quickly,” says Hart.
“That’s the approach Sierra Energy is taking.”
For related articles, see:
Clean, Renewable Energy Could Power U.S. by 2050
New Toy Teaches Kids to Power Up With Renewable Energy
Check out more articles by Debra Atlas.
© 2012 SCGH, LLC.