2016 REW Conference: A technology that takes time

2016 REW Conference: A technology that takes time

Gasification technology providers share the challenges and the progress they've encountered.

December 5, 2016
Kristin Smith
Pictured from left to right, Steve Simmons, Gershman, Brickner & Bratton; Mo Vargas, Concord Blue Energy; Alex Gorodetsky, Alter NRG; and Rob White, Sierra Energy.

Gasification projects are making some gains while others are experiencing delays. During a session titled "Advancing Gasification" at the Renewable Energy from Waste Conference, Nov. 14-16, in Long Beach, California, speakers from three different gasification companies provided updates on projects they are working on in this sector.

Rob White, executive director of the Sierra Energy Research Park (SERP) and the chief strategist for Sierra Energy based in Davis, California, noted that in California, gasification is looked at as an incineration type technology. It is my job today that will change your mind and talk about the future of where thermal conversion is for the state and globally.

He said waste is a driver for greenhouse gas emissions. Waste is economically unsustainable and is increasingly large burden for liability. Sierra Energy can take cost driver and turn it into a cost opportunity, he said.

White also discussed the differences between gasification and incineration. “It is a different thermal chemical reaction to incineration,” he explained. “In our vessel specifically there is no opportunity to have a combustion effect because we anaerobically starve everything until the very end where all you have left is biochar and that biochar becomes a fuel source that then become volatilized at the very end with steam and oxygen injection.”

He noted that the emissions and reclamation of resources are different in gasification and it does not produce ash at the end of the process like incineration.

Sierra Energy built a full-scale demonstration of its technology with the Army at the Renewable Energy Testing Center in Sacramento, California, in partnership with UC Davis and the Department of Defense. They amassed data on the technology. The experience validated the technology and it led to an opportunity with the Army.

“The reality is these technologies are not easy,” said White. “Nobody is typically handed a big check and told to go invent some new technology for waste conversion.”

In Sierra Energy’s case it has been 13 years of development from the time it acquired the patent to today. The unit is a steel making blast furnace. White said the process is not complicated. Materials are heated to 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and starved from oxygen and nitrogen. At the of the process only oxygen and steam are injected and material is brought to 4,000 degrees F.

At that temperature, White says, inorganics melt and become slag and the impurities are locked in. The slag created is “Class 2” aggregate compliant in California for use as a road base. It can also be ground and used as a replacement for fly ash in cement, he said. Metals are also recovered.

“The syngas recovery is what pays for the system,” said White. He says the system takes a variety of waste profiles and ends up with a rough ratio of 40 percent hydrogen (H2), 40 carbon monoxide (CO) and 20 percent carbon dioxide (CO2).

“If you then were to combust that into a gen set, you would be at values emission-wise below that of natural gas,” he noted. 

Sierra Energy is upgrading that syngas further to make diesel and hydrogen working with the California Energy Commission (CED) and Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

“We think hydrogen is the real holy grail as far as opportunities go,” White said, adding hydrogen distributed networks are a problem.

He talked about some of the projects Sierra Energy has underway, including Ft. Hunter Liggett, which is processing between 10-12 tons of post recycled waste at the Army base working with the Army CEC DLA. He called it a great state and federal public private partnership.

Sierra is also moving forward with its Zero-Waste Innovation Park (ZWIP) at the Yolo County Central Landfill, which takes in 250 tons of waste per day. ZWIP will process 100 tons of waste per day. Meanwhile, the company has also been asked by the Army to develop a 2-3 ton per day system to process hazardous materials in the field.

According to White, these projects show that Sierra Energy has “a very dynamic system that can meet a wide range of opportunity space big and small.”

He noted that Sierra Energy is also in the locomotive business and the driver of the development for fuel and well as much of the investment dollars have come from that business. Sierra Energy is looking at a project with the Port of Sacramento to produce hydrogen as well as talking to the Sacramento Kings to address its waste and create electricity for them.

“It is a really significant investment but a really but it is also a really interesting outcome for infrastructure, says White.

Commissioning of Fort Hunter Liggett is scheduled for Dec. 15 with full commission operations slated for mid-February. By March, the facility is expected to be creating both diesel and electricity, said White.

Another company making progress with its gasification technology is Los Angeles-based Concord Blue Energy. Its CEO, Mo Vargas, acknowledged, “It is taking much longer than any of us thought it was going to.”

He said his company felt it needed find a way to take these advanced technologies and find partners who want to take a longer view. The risks, he said are large in the short term but there is opportunity over the long term.

The company’s Concord Blue Transformer produces high-quality synthetic gas. The company’s approach is to produce electricity initially to “get steel in the ground and short-term return.”

Then the company can go after the transportation fuels and biochar.

“Electricity is the short-term solution to getting steel in the ground and short term return,”Vargas advised attendees. Fuel cells and transportation also are great opportunities, he added.

Vargas said it is important to understand what your partner is looking for in a project. Municipalities are dealing with expenses, energy supplies and landfills, he said.

“We tend to shy away from large cities,” he said. A better fit for the company, he said, is remote areas and tertiary cities. With 10 plants in operation, the company is still learning about CapEx (capital expenditures) and OpEx (operational expenses).

“We can’t compete with an incinerator doing 500 tons a day,” he said.

Opportunities exist for Concord Blue on the institutional side with hospitals and universities, which he said are often leaders with different drivers than municipalities. The commercial and industrial sectors also are focused on the circular economy and carbon offsets. The company also sees opportunity with the military.

Concord Blue’s projects are using a variety of feedstocks, including biomass, plastics, municipal solid waste, medical waste and sewage sludge. Vargas said the company didn’t try to engineer several different sizes as it would cost $3 million to $5 million every time you do that. Instead, the company went with four different sizes, with smaller units capable of processing 10 tons per day.

Vargas said Concord Blue found a great partner with Lockheed Martin. The partnership with the large aerospace company building rockets helped Vargas realize getting a gasifier to work isn’t that tough. The company put Concord Blue through “due diligence hell,” he said. All the gasifiers built for Lockheed Martin has its stamp of approval in the form of performance guarantees.

Concord Blue recently completed a project for Lockheed Martin in Owego, New York. It is also building a plant in in Germany, which will be online in 2018, and one in Eagar, Arizona, which is expected to be online in 2017.

While Concord Blue projects are moving forward, another gasification company has faced a major setback with one of its projects.

Alex Gorodetsky, vice president – sales engineering for Alter NRG, Calgary, Canada, said the company has gone through quite a transition in the last year as a public company to now being owned, Kaidi, a China-based company that builds, owns and operates a portfolio of power facilities, generating 1,400 MW per year in China and Vietnam and is permitted for another 3,000 MW over the next 5 years. It is its own engineering and procurement contractor with more than 200-plus projects it is working on. “It has been rapidly expanding,” he says.

Alter NRG develops and owns projects utilizing Westinghouse Plasma Corp. (WPC) technology. The technology has over 30 years of research and development behind it and $2 billion in projects and technology development. The company’s focus is to divert waste from landfills, including MSW and hazardous waste. It provides both small- and large-scale solutions, from 25 tons to 1,000 tons per day.

Gorodetsky talked about the history of the technology. In the 1980s, he said Westinghouse developed a series of plasma torches employed for metallurgic applications. In the 1990s the technology was used in Japan for incinerator ash. In the late 1990s, a pilot plant built to gasify MSW, which ran for a year. Then he said, in the early 2000s two commercial scale facilities were built in Japan, one processing 25 tons per day and one at 200 tons per day of MSW.

Since then, Gorodetsky, said the technology has expanded toward hazardous and medical waste in India and China as well as renewables in liquid fuel in the U.S. and China and a combined cycle power facility in the U.K.

“The driver behind this technology is global population growth,” said Gorodetsky. “As population increases so does our waste generation. We believe waste is a significant energy resource.”

He added, “It is an untapped resource that you can convert using gasification technology.”
The company has gone through three generations in its gasifier design over the years."

He described the gasification process as series of plasma torches located at the bottom of the gasifier. As waste is introduced in the middle of the vessel, the foundry coke acts as a hot bed, melting inorganic material. The melt flows to bottom and acts as a slag. Organic material is converted to syngas and oxygen, which rises upward and goes out the top of the gasifier where it is quenched with water. The syngas is rich with carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be cleaned and converted to power, liquid fuels or other chemicals.

“The advantage of plasma gasification, is you can essentially create your fuel for free because of the waste tipping fee that’s received,” explained Gorodetsky. “You end up with a fuel you can also sell on the back end.“

He said a tipping fee of about $60 ton is sufficient to cover the operating costs of the plasma gasifier. Operating and capital would be around $80 per ton, he noted.

He said Alter NRG had worked with several technology partners with its syngas including RES Keidi, Velocys and LanzaTech.

He discussed the much-anticipated Tees Valley, U.K. project. “This has really been our flagship project for the last five years,” he said.

He said it is the world’s largest and first energy-from-waste combined cycle facility. Alter NRG supplied two plasma gasifiers to Air Products, Allentown, Pennsylvania, which owns the process. The project was to process 2,000 tons per day of MSW in twin plants to produce 100 MW of gross electric power.

He said Tees Valley 1 is completely built and Tees Valley 2 is 75 percent built.

“We have had quite a set back with Air Products as they reorganize,” noted Gorodetsky.
He said the company had a CEO change a year ago, and it reorganized its business units late in 2015 to create better focus for its core business which is industrial gases. As a result, he said, the company has been selling off noncore business units.

“Unfortunately, this energy from waste business is one of those noncore business units,” Gorodetsky told attendees. “Since this announcement they have essentially stopped work on this project so we are in a wait and see mode until the next owner takes over.”

Tees Valley 1 has undergone some startup runs. He said some deficiencies were detected and corrective actions have been put in place. He noted that none of the deficiencies were “critical flaws” with the gasification units.

The Renewable Energy from Waste Conference was Nov. 14-16 at the Westin Long Beach in Long Beach, California.