Under the Big Banana, "garbage in, energy out"

March 7, 2011 |

On the eastern coast of Australia not far south of the Queensland-New South Wales border lies the “banana republic” of Coffs Harbor, notable for many years as the center of Australia’s banana industry but also a laid-back, holiday-town lifestyle featuring some decent three-meter surfing conditions, and a forty-foot long banana sculpture known, unsurprisingly, as the Big Banana.

We were surprised and delighted recently to discover that Coffs Harbor has also been home to a technology demonstration in waste-based biofuels. One with connections to the publicly-traded CleanTech Biofuels — and has the potential to bring low-cost municipal solid waste as a feedstock to a wider set of biofuels ventures.

Why MSW is the darling of biofuels feedstocks

Now, everyone loves the concept of utilizing municipal solid waste. First of all, there’s quite a lot of it – in the US, the average person generates around 6 pounds of MSW per day – that adds up to about 900,000 tons of MSW per day just in the US. Second, its noxious. Third, its expensive and odious to store in landfills. Fourth, landfills are incredibly hard to permit – there’s hardly a project type in the world that elicits more opposition of the “not in my backyard type”. Fifth, because there are “tipping fees” long-associated with dumping garbage, biofuels ventures have salivated at the potential of acquiring feedstock at low, no, or even negative cost. Sixth, the supply is predictable, and can be supplied via long-term contracts, at stable prices, from a credit worthy partner (the municipal authority). Seventh, we already aggregate it.

Because of all of the above, projects that have been using MSW have been, generally speaking, having an easier time of it in terms of obtaining loan guarantees and term sheets and moving towards commercialization. USDA loan guarantee conditional commitments were recently issued to the Enerkem and INEOS Bio projects in Mississippi and Florida that both utilize MSW, and BlueFire Renewables and Fulcrum Bioenergy are two others that are working through the DOE loan guarantee process right now.

So, where are the gallons?

So, with all that, why aren’t projects springing up everywhere, all the time, using MSW as a feedstock? Well, not every technology handles it well. Those that do generally require a pre-sorted biomass stream – essentially, you have to get the metals and plastics out of there. And not every municipality has that pre-sorting technology.

So, for some time, observers have been waiting for an intermediate group of technologies to spring up, or even one, that takes in unsorted MSW from a municipality, crushes, sorts and spits out an low-cost stream of lignocellulosic biomass suitable for processing into fuels, chemicals and more.

And that, of all things, has been going on for the past two years under the Big Banana in Coffs Harbor.

An intermediate technology

The technology has been licensed for the US by Cleantech Biofuels, which has concluded that it can produce lignocellulosic biomass for under $25 per ton, without government subsidy. Contrast that to $40-$60 per ton for ambitious corn stover and switchgrass cost analyses – and woody biomass costs that are generally at least $40 per ton, and have gone as high as $100 per ton in selected areas owing to the demand for woodchips for biomass-to-power, and you have some idea of the appeal.

Cleantech, which is publicly traded, is basing its economics around tipping fees, the sale of biomass, and the sale of process steam and power generated by its conversion process. Put simple, instead of buying corn stover at $60 a ton (if you can get it), buy treated biomass produced at less than $25 per ton. We don;t know the market pricing yet – but it’s an economically compelling story – not to mention a good way to reduce landfill usage. As CleanTech outs it, it’s “garbage in, energy out.”

Overall, Cleantech projects that as much as 500 million tons could be revovered worldwide using technology like this, of which 50 percent or more in cellulosic in nature. With conversion of, say, 100 gallons per ton of liquid from its feedstock, that’s as much as 25 billion gallons per year of ethanol equivalent, or 15 billion gallons of diesel-equivalent. That’s a tidy supplement to any scenario for a transition from fossil fuels. What’s potentially game changing about this technology is its ability to bring this feedstock to any project that can handle lignocellulose.

The CleanTech process

Cleantech’s process? Step 1: MSW is delivered to a tippling floor. Oversized items such as appliances and furniture are removed

Step 2: The remaining MSW is conveyed into a PSC Vessel, which are sealed and pressurized.

Step 3: The now-sterile materials are separated and delaminated, then crushed aluminum, steel, plastics and glass are removed. High-quality biomass is recovered for use in power or electricity generation, biofuel production or co-firing boilers.

The company’s progress. The US patent on the Biomass Reccovery Process technology was issued last summer, and the company has installed a demonstration system at the Fiberight cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in Lawrenceville, Virginia, following on from a 2009 joint research agreement signed with Fiberight. Under the agreement, Fiberight finances the running costs of the the Lawrenceville installation, while Cleantech Biofuels has access to the feedstock for testing by other companies interested in partnership.

More on Cleantech, which we recently added to the Biofuels Digest Index as a company we intend to watch carefully as it approaches the commercialization phase, can be had via this presentation, recently delivered at the MSW-to-Biofuels meeting in Chicago organized by Eye for Energy, here.

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