June 1, 2011

3 Min Read
Scale Up or Shut Up

At this year’s WasteExpo, there was a lot of talk about waste conversion technologies. Waste conversion is the conversion of municipal solid waste (MSW) into valuable end products. Typically, a waste conversion technology like pyrolysis or gasification will convert MSW into gaseous products like hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane and other gases (collectively called “syngas”); condensed liquids such as benzene, toluene, styrene and limonene; or other inert materials.

The perceived value in waste conversion is that you can fairly quickly generate a variety of valuable products instead of having to wait decades for the methane produced by landfilled waste. These end products can be used to generate energy or chemical products immediately.

Generating high-value products from waste without the long wait, while reaping collection and tipping fees — sounds enticing, right? The pitch from some waste conversion vendors would lead you to believe that this technology is tried, true and widely operational. Why, with a few million dollars down, you’ll get a plant that will immediately start recouping your investment and make your firm millions more in just a few short years. The pitch usually includes a vague description of a process that allows “more than 98 percent of processed waste to be diverted from landfills into useful products” and is “versatile, swiftly profitable and massively scalable.” Other key lines include: “proven, clean technology,” “reduces harmful emissions and contamination,” and “converts garbage into fuel.”

With this unassailable pitch and a potential transformation of the industry in the offing, it is no wonder waste conversion has generated buzz. As part of the leading U.S. solid waste research foundation, I frequently get calls citing the above “facts” before being asked, “What do you think?”

Now, you probably think I am about to throw waste conversion under the bus. I am not. I’m all for the profitable generation of useful end products that minimizes fossil fuel usage while potentially eliminating environmental and corporate risk. However, right now it seems the hype has far outstripped the pace of technological development. A wise sage once told me, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Frankly, I ain’t seeing much proof thus far.

The devil is in the details, and the pesky details here are scale and contamination. Let me elaborate. Although gasification and pyrolysis are “proven” technologies (they were developed by NASA in the ‘70s to heat test the re-entry of space vehicles, with great success), there is the tiny issue of scalability. My beef is that one cannot cite technology as scalable without providing proof.

Proof in this case means demonstrating a waste conversion facility can process MSW at a scale comparable to tonnages received at even a small landfill. A quick search of corporate press releases and federal databases reveals that right now there is not a single scaled-up plant operating in the United States. There are a number of facilities under development by the Jacoby Group and Enerkem that are supposed to be operational within the next few years. I await these plants with baited breath. It will be exciting to see how the scaled technology lives up to the claims.

Additionally, the issue of contamination is something you are unlikely to hear mentioned on a sales call. Nevertheless, MSW components containing heavy metals and toxic compounds are a concern because they must be removed prior to processing to ensure catalysts or other materials used in gasification are not adversely affected. Thus, while 98 percent of processed MSW can be converted to useful materials, in most cases pre-sorting must occur to remove these contaminants.

Waste conversion technology IS promising, but as with any new technological development, there are limitations and potential issues to overcome. This is not yet an “off-the-shelf” technology, and investment risk to bring the technology to a usable scale is still high. In short, buyers beware. There is still a lot of snake oil out there.

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