Synova and the pursuit of clean, green and lean

October 10, 2017 |

A newer technology Synova Power has arrived with the promise of clean, green, lean stream of pipeline-quality natural gas from biomass.

There have been so many claims of “lean and green” over the years, we had better make some quick distinctions to highlight why this is a technology to watch.

Lean, green or clean?

Lean — in the sense of affordable. Green — in the sense of low-carbon. Clean — in the sense of workably pure, within a biochemical or thermochemical system. Virtually every technology that has come along has had, at best, two of the three.

Streams coming off a petroleum refinery, for example, have been lean and clean for years. And, since oil prices collapsed in 2014-15, more lean than ever. But they haven’t been green.

Streams coming off conventional biofuels refineries have been clean and green, but they haven’t been in most cases sufficiently lean, which is why walled-garden green markets established by the Renewable Fuel Standard have been so vital to them.

Streams coming off cellulosic biofuels or biogas refineries have been green, and in some cases (and increasingly) lean, but they haven’t been in most cases sufficiently clean, and that shortfall in clean has been keeping gas out of pipelines, poisoning catalysts, plugging up lines, and in other ways killing the rates and yields needed to make money in the cellulosic business.

The confusion between “clean” and “green” in the public’s mind has been a problem. Because most people see all cases of greentech as a subset of cleantech, we haven’t had room in the language for a definition of ‘clean’ that refers to a certain purity and composition that works efficiently and effectively within a refining or conversion technology, or a pipeline. It’s as if “clean” is a trivial distinction, but it most assuredly is not.

Take for example, biodiesel. It’s greentech and generally thought of as cleantech — all of it. Yet there are feedstocks such as pure vegetable oil, which are clean but not very lean. Bioconversion technology has long ago figured how to work with them, but the feedstock can coss more than the fuel, and the economics can get upside down in a hurry.

Then there are high free fatty acid feedstocks, such as brown grease — they are lean and they are green, you can buy them on the cheap and they give you a very low-carbon fuel. But many bioconversion technologies can work with none of them, and no bioconversion technology can work with all of them.

Here comes gasification to save the day

Gasification technology has been, for many people — a way around many of the problems of affordable feedstocks for a long time. Instead of trying to deal with the impurities and recalcitrant conversion challenges, say, of lignocellulose, why not just heat it up until you have that soup of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as syngas?

That’s where bioconversion technologies like Fischer-Tropsch have come in — converting syngas into fuels. And, there are other technologies that have come along that work with methane, too. Calysta, Mango Materials, Synata, Siluria to name just a few.

But conventional gasification has been solving the problems of lean better than clean. Yes, gasifiers have allow for the use of the entire feedstock — no combusting of lignin because it can’t be otherwise used. But most gasifiers have either produced a stream that is not clean enough to use, or technologies like plasma gasification have solved the clean problem but at too high a cost.

So, we’ve seen trouble in the gas business in getting lean, green and clean.

Another example? You can find cheap renewable biogas from manure and it might be green but it won’t be clean when you get it, or lean after you’ve processed it. That’s why biogas technologies need the alternative green markets created by the Renewable Fuel Standard the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard, or by state-based Renewable Power Standards.

And,, some of the gas that’s come along where the claim has been that it is both lean and green, has turned out to be not very clean, and conversion technologies have found it unaffordably difficult to work with. KiOR and Range Fuels come to mind.

Introducing Synova and it’s MSW-to-energy technology

But let us turn to Synova and it’s claim to be clean, green and lean — having described the reasons why such a simple claim can be so alluring and, until proven, controversial.

The slogan for Synova goes like this: “When You Remove the Impurities, Waste is Pure Energy”.

The company, on its website, goes on to explain:

Quite simply, the world needs new sources of clean, reliable, baseload power. Synova’s process for recovering energy from mixed-waste removes the impurities and recovers conventional recyclables such as metal, glass, and certain plastics, as well as the chemical energy in the residual, a residual that would ordinarily be discarded in a landfill or worse. Removal of the impurities allows the chemical energy within to be used for the production of clean baseload power.

A simple diagram of Synova’s approach

So, in the context of our discussion above, the technology aims at something we already know is lean and green at its point of origin — municipal solid waste. You can make a very low-carbon energy or fuel from the biogenic fraction of trash, that’s been well-established for a long time. And, for the time present, MSW is lean, which is to say cheap, cheap, cheap. They’ll even pay you a tipping fee to take it away. That will continue so long as there are more nightmarish “build another landfill in someone’s backyard” problems than there are “come hither and we will convert your nightmare into a valuable material” opportunities. That is, for a while.

We visit negative cost feedstocks in our Way, Way, Way Back Machine

We saw that 10 years ago or so in the biodiesel business. Back in 2007, you could charge a restaurant as much as $25 a week to pick up and dispose of their waste fryer greases and oils. If you could find a technology that could convert fryer oil to biodiesel, you had the potential for a goldmine based in negative-cost feedstock and a valuable fuel sold at a premium to diesel.

But eventually enough technologies came along that could handle fryer oil — as well as rendering fats. These days, yellow grease is sold as a valuable commodity, and some weeks, pound for pound, costs more than diesel fuel.

But those future challenges lie far ahead for municipal solid waste. Right now, the disposal crisis is by far the controlling factor in pricing, and you can still get tipping fees for offtake of MSW. Eventually, that will progress to zero cost, then nominal offtake prices, then full market value. Someday.

For now, it’s lean and green. The trick of the bioconversion process, then, is two-fold. You have to create a clean gas without blowing up the economics. Which is to say: make it clean, keep it lean.

The Synova alternative

Here’s the Synova four-step claim in terms of efficiency (which relates back to cost), and purity, rendered in Harper’s Index style.

Average efficiency of classic energy from waste plants: 25%
Efficiency of a Synova integrated gasifier combined cycle gas turbine system: 36%

Typical size of a Synova power unit: 18MWe
Percentage of targeted contaminants are removed by the OLGA gas cleaning process: 99.9%

“The OLGA process strips gasified municipal solid waste (MSW) of tars and other impurities, leaving pure hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen,” the company says. “The process unlocks this clean, pure, and largely biogenic energy so that it can be used without harming the environment. Contaminants—small in volume—are removed and/or sequestered or recycled.”

“In addition, because the tars resulting from gasification contain roughly 15% of the chemical energy resident in the gasification feedstock, our process recycles them back into the gasifier in a way that ensures they are broken down and no longer form the unwanted compounds.”

“The gas has not been very pure from the sector,” Synova CEO Giffen Ott told The Digest. “You can tell from the dirty orange flame. Our gas is very pure. It’s now blue, like a kitchen stove. That means we can go into a Caterpillar turbine, or we can go into bio for chemicals or fuels.”

What’s the holy grail, when it comes to clean? That’s pipeline injection. In fact, the DOE has been working on supporting projects to make a pipeline-ready renewable gas stream — that’s been a goal of the biogas industry for some time.

The market opportunity

Here’s how Synova sees the opportunity:

Percentage of the world’s waste that is dumped or landfilled: 50%+ 
Highest fraction of Municipal Solid Waste a country has diverted to recycling or composting (Austria): 63% 
Capital required to address the first 80% of the unmet need: $500+ billion 
Number of WTE plants China plans to install in the next few years: 300+

The Dahlman and ECN connections

The Energy Center of the Netherlands has led alternative energy efforts, including a national quest to produce a pipeline-grade, synthetic natural gas from biomass. OLGA, MILENA, and a methanization process were developed at ECN for this purpose.

Royal Dahlman is a leader in process filtration and scrubbing systems for the refining and petrochemicals industries, with a 128-year history of research, development, and engineering solutions for high temperature, high pressure, abrasive or corrosive processes. Synova is a significant investor in Royal Dahlman.

DRT houses Royal Dahlman’s renewable energy initiatives and dedicated staff. When the Energy Center of the Netherlands  conceived and developed their OLGA tar removal process, Royal Dahlman was a natural fit for its commercialization. This, in turn, led to a similar role commercializing the ECN’s proprietary gasifier, MILENA.

 

Dahlman Renewable Technology is Synova’s key partner for technical development and it provides the design and engineering packages as well as arranges fabrication for the OLGA and MILENA systems employed by Synova. DRT has a worldwide exclusive license for OLGA, certain licenses for MILENA, and pending patents of its own for associated systems.

Capturing the opportunity

Together with Royal Dahlman, Synova has developed a turnkey, four-step solution:

1. Feedstock preparation (at a remote location or co-located with steps 2-4)
2. Gasification
3. OLGA gas cleaning
4. Power or chemical production

Here’s the model: develop or co-develop projects from the ground up, from sourcing the waste supply and choosing the site to securing offtake agreements; from connections and permits to arranging technology and construction agreements; from operations and maintenance to issuing debt and equity. Projects are typically structured so that no investment is required from the municipality (the waste supplier) or industrial host (the off-taker).

Modular designs are available for independent power, and can be leveraged for custom industrial applications or CHP designs. Royal Dahlman provides the OLGA kit—and MILENA, where applicable—and Synova sources the balance from established suppliers. Each unit in the kit is proven at scales equal to or greater than the scale of the first projects, for many years under industrial conditions.

The Bottom Line

Is it affordable? Does it deliver?

In energy markets, caveat emptor. Claims are not proof on the bench, proof on the bench is not technical success at scale, technical success is a component, but only one, of financial success. So, due diligence will be required.

New technologies must reside at the claim level until the market has had time to engage and evaluate the process and the economics. But conceptually, here’s a technology that has lean, green and clean all wrapped up into one. And that is a remarkable step — and makes this tech one to watch and watch carefully over the next months and seasons.

More about Synova here.

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