The world’s largest defense contractor has garbage in its crosshairs. And it isn’t just trash talk.
Lockheed Martin, the Bethesda, Md.-based defense and aerospace giant, has partnered with the waste management company Concord Blue to save landfill space by advancing waste-to-energy engineering.
Together, they are launching a pair of pilot projects in Upstate New York and Germany that convert waste products into synthetic gas. The two-step gasification process, pyrolysis and reformation, uses heat carriers instead of air. The garbage turns to raw gas when mixed with balls of aluminum oxide and exposed to intense heat in an oxygen-starved environment. That raw syngas is then refined, or reformed.
“We took existing technologies and combined them and modified them,” Lockheed’s Mauricio “Mo” Vargas says. He is the bioenergy lead of new ventures for the company’s mission systems and training business. “Companies have come and gone in pursuing this technology. We knew we could add value to what Concord Blue was doing. Our question was, how do we make this better and solve one of the world’s biggest problems—what to do with trash.”
A 250-kilowatt facility in Owego, N.Y., south of Syracuse, is scheduled to come online in the last quarter of this year. It is being constructed adjacent to a biomass plant that uses woodchips from a local sawmill to fuel two wood-fired boilers. Eventually, feedstock for the new modular plant will come from locally sourced refuse-derived fuel, which is made from the combustible portion of municipal solid waste.
Construction on a second project is set to begin next April in Herten, Germany. Waste wood will be the feedstock for that 5-megawatt plant near Dusseldorf.
Once cleaned, synthetic gas, or syngas, has applications as fuels for transportation and for heating and cooling. For instance, it can fuel gas engines for high-efficiency electric power production. It also can be used to produce hydrogen and ethanol, or as a blender for natural gas and as a raw material for biofuels.
This Lockheed and Concord Blue joint effort is not incineration because no burning occurs. A 250-kilowatt plant operating on a one-acre site on a 24-hour cycle and consuming 15,000 pounds of municipal solid waste feedstock produces about 240 standard cubic feet per minute of raw syngas and 740 pounds of waste ash, according to a Lockheed specification sheet.
Charlie Thannhaeuser, founder and CEO of Concord Blue, which has significant trash-to-fuel expertise, called his partnership with Lockheed an important milestone. His U.S. headquarters is in Los Angeles.
“We have the ability to further refine our process, standardize and modularize our solution, and take advantage of (Lockheed’s) global footprint and excellent network,” Thannhaeuser said via news release.
Nobody should be too shocked that Lockheed has sprouted a green streak, Vargas says, adding that the company is focusing on non-defense projects and international markets. These include ventures such as purifying water, farming fish in a more eco-friendly fashion and pulling energy from tides.
“We’re such a technology-driven company,” he says, adding that its 113,000 engineers and technical specialists are trained to find answers. “All of this is a good fit for Lockheed Martin because that’s what makes us tick.”
While Lockheed is a conservative company by nature, Vargas explains, its leaders seek challenges that are complex, not run-of-the-mill.
“Waste-to-energy is a huge universal market,” he says about the billions of tons of trash the world generates. “I don’t think there’s a country in the world that’s saying, ‘We have our waste problem all figured out.’”
Creating hydrogen is especially exciting, Vargas says, because it’s a gas that Toyota and other automakers have touted as a fuel of the future. That doesn’t mean Lockheed is trying to compete with oil companies or enter the hydrogen gas business, he emphasizes, but it does mean there is potential to collaborate with local governments and businesses to explore the expansion of an infrastructure now in its infancy.
“It’s not as if this technology hasn’t existed before,” Vargas says about treating waste as a multifaceted resource. “It just needs to work at scale so the economic model makes sense. And as long as we’re not violating the laws of physics and chemistry, we think this can be done.”