Shazzan!: Turning Urban Trash into Treasure Island, the LanzaTech, Sekisui Chemicals story

December 6, 2017 |

Sekisui Chemicals, LanzaTech break-through in MSW-to-ethanol demonstration

Today we return to the subject of landfill, or as we like to think of it, the Island of Misfit Feedstocks. We’ll continue the storyline with a welcome technology breakthrough, and begin with the observation that of all the things that people throw into a landfill, no one ever throws dollars. Were trash to acquire a substantial uplift in value, that’s the end to the landfill crisis.

In Japan, Sekisui Chemical and LanzaTech have successfully demonstrated the production of ethanol from unsorted municipal solid waste — which can be used directly as a fuel or as a precursor to butadiene (a key raw material in the production of synthetic fibers and rubber), isopropanol, and isoprene — which themselves are used to make anything from tires to sneakers, cell phone covers to yoga pants.

The Project Backstory

20,000 L per year municipal solid waste pilot facility.

In 2013, Sekisui launched a project with LanzaTech to find an economically viable way to recycle the carbon in garbage into useful products, such as plastics and rubber. With a pilot scale facility outside of Tokyo, Sekisui has succeeded in demonstrating stable plant operation and high ethanol yields.

According to Sekisui, the plant’s performance demonstrated conversion efficiencies approximately four times that of conventional material recycling in Japan. With such efficiencies, Sekisui estimates that it would be possible to produce the equivalent amount of plastic and rubber products used in Japan today, applying to technology across Japan’s waste resource.

And, let’s look at the global footprint of waste. “Globally we could make around 60 billion gallons of fuel from existing landfill waste,” LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren told The Digest.

Next steps in Japan? Sekisui will collaborate with many local governments and waste incineration companies who are the main operators of incinerators as potential partners and utilize government support targeting technology commercialization by 2019.

The Technology Backstory

Unsorted non recycled, non-compostable municipal solid waste fed directly to gasifier and continuously converted to ethanol.

Today, many MSW streams are incinerated or super-heated to produce a synthesis gas made up of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which is then combusted for power and emitted as CO2. With the fall in global renewable power costs and the rise of emissions reductions targets, Sekisui wanted to do better. Together with LanzaTech, they have taken an existing gasification system at a landfill site and added LanzaTech’s fermentation capability to a slipstream of the gas.

In contrast to traditional fermentation that uses yeast to convert sugars into products such as ethanol, This technology, which was first demonstrated in 2013 in a laboratory unit, has now been demonstrated at pilot scale achieving commercial productivity and stability targets.

1) Microbial technology to produce ethanol from gas emitted from waste? That’s LanzaTech’s technology. Unlike traditional yeast fermentation, which ferments sugar, LanzaTech uses a microbe to ferment gases. The microbes continuously produce products, such as ethanol. The gas at the Sekisui facility is a synthesis gas derived from landfill wastes that are unsorted and otherwise incinerated. This gas contains carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The microbe has a safety rating equivalent to that of baker’s yeast and is not considered a biosafety risk for future widespread use. In addition, the reaction is under normal temperature and normal pressure, greatly reducing the cost of production, compared to existing chemical processing technologies.

2) Clean up technology to purify feedstock gas to harmless levels for microbes. That’s Sekisui’s technology. LanzaTech has identified gas contaminants present in gas streams from certain industrial processes that have an impact on the performance of the LanzaTech process. The gas stream produced by the continuous processing of MSW varies in both the synthesis gas content and composition of contaminants due to variability in the MSW composition itself. Sekisui has successfully developed a gas treatment process which results in a continuous stream of synthesis gas meeting LanzaTech’s tolerance specifications.

Others have attempted MSW-to-ethanol before. What happened?

Enerkem is doing it at small commercial-scale in Edmonton, but MSW-to-ethanol has elsewhere been slow to emerge. At one time, Fulcrum BioEnergy contemplated MSW-to-ethanol before shifting decisively towards making drop-in jet and diesel fuels. And Terrabon (now Earth Energy Renewables) worked hard in this field; Fiberight too. It’s proven to be a difficult technology and, more to the point, difficult project economics.

So, the Sekisui clean-up technology is critical in this respect — the wrong gas streams just kills the economics, we’ve seen, even faster than it poisons the microbe. Rate and yield goes out the window.

But there’s titer, as well — the concentration of ethanol which the microbe can tolerate. The lower the titer, the higher the energy needed for the distillation step that separated ethanol from the broth. One of the features of LanzaTech’s microbes is the relatively high tolerance of ethanol — higher titers are possible. In addition, since the ethanol is produced by microorganisms working at normal temperature and pressure, it is possible to operate at extremely low costs, signaling the economic viability of the process in a commercial setting.

Which brings us to a question that others have asked — why bother with all this high tech? Why not simply continue with business as usual, make syngas from trash and combust syngas to make power?

Two notes there. One — if the demand and the economics were obviously there, everyone would be doing it already. Two, if business as usual were so attractive, Sekisui (which is in that business) would stay put.

As we have noted before:

Based on process efficiency, it is more carbon-efficient to combust syngas to make power.

By the same measure, it is more carbon-efficient to leave a tree in the ground instead of making paper from it. And it is certainly more process efficient to move wastewater back into homes and businesses without treating it. So, why do we make paper? Why are trees felled? Why do we treat wastewater?

Here’s why. Economic value is the driver, rather than efficiency — economics trump efficiency as a measuring stick for investment and deployment. Bottom line, people pay enough more for paper to compensate for the loss in yield compared to other uses (or the value of leaving a tree in the ground). It’s the reason that Farmer’s Markets exist, if you’ve ever visited one. It’s certainly less energy-efficient and process-efficient for farmers to individually schlepp goods into the city and runs tiny stands that sell directly to consumers. They do it because of the higher margins available in selling direct. That’s the power of economics vs the power of efficiency.

The Emissions Backstory

This is second-chance carbon, maybe more. You can either go with a cycle of some product that went to the landfill-trash-butadiene-tires-trash-buitadiene-tires and so on and so on — or the simpler one of
some product that went to the landfill-trash-ethanol-emission.

It fits well with Japan’s culture, and recent strategy. The Japanese government adopted an official policy entitled “Growth Strategy 2017” that formulates strategies for the development of innovations to achieve a “carbon recycling-oriented society.” Specifically, Japan’s “3R” strategy of reducing, reusing and recycling resources and supports the nationwide movement to reduce emissions by 26% below 2013 levels by 2030 according to Japan’s Paris Climate commitments.

The Bottom Line

The allure of turning trash into treasure is obvious enough that the question really becomes, why is this such a rare pursuit? More people hunt with falcons, more people study ancient Sanskrit, than the headcount of MSW-to-ethanol technology developers.

To set the scene, let’s recall the 1960s animated series, Shazzan,

Inside a cave off the coast of Maine, Chuck and Nancy find a mysterious chest containing the halves of a strange ring. When joined, the ring forms the word “Shazzan” and with this magical command, they are transported back to the fabled land of the Arabian Nights.

In this case, Chuck and Nancy are LanzaTech and Sekisui. Two technologies, like the halves of a strange ring, joined to make an economic breakthrough, which has been about as elusive as a pathway back to the land of 1,000 Arabian Nights.

Boy, do we need a breakthrough on economics. Action on carbon is predicated on finding affordable substitutes for more wasteful approaches. Trust me, if there was good money to be readily made in meeting the carbon goals of the Paris Agreement, the United States would be all over it. Paris is about money, amigo, make no mistake — who wins on carbon, who loses (not to point fingers, but Elon Musk isn’t exactly giving away electric cars).

Why am I such a misfit?

The US business model doesn’t fit in, and the American climate dilemma is not entirely unlike the plot driver for the Christmas animated classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, if you think about it.

Why am I such a misfit?
I am not just a nitwit.
You can’t fire me I quit,
since I don’t fit in.

Sure, there are subsidies, incentives, carbon prices, mandates, schemes, genies, wizards, shaman, diviners, sorcerors, or the mighty Green Arrow himself, social crusader and iconoclast. More powerful than any of those are positive economics and know-how. Unlocking opportunities to do good and do well — that’s a talent more valuable today than bending steel with bare hands or leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Look, up in the sky!
It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane!
No, it’s a way to make money with low carbon technology!

To put this into cultural terms for our Japanese readers, you might see here an opportunity to resolve the conflict between the giri of doing something socially beneficial about carbon and the ninjo of desiring something that benefits ourselves as individuals or as a company.

Next step is to build a project. Technology commercialization by 2019, they say. We’ll keep an eye on that. Meanwhile, everyone has trash and pretty much everyone ought to be dialing up the numbers on doing a project like this.

Reaction from the stakeholders

Senior Managing Executive Officer, Responsible for Corporate Research and Development Satoshi Uenoyama, of Sekisui Chemical, says, “Garbage is an important resource. It is essential our society effectively utilize this valuable and abundant resource as the ‘urban oil field’ of the future enabling the creation of a sustainable society. It is our mission to replicate this technology widely.”

“This is a feedstock that cannot be ignored and the data we have generated tells a powerful story,” added LanzaTech’s Holmgren “Imagine ethanol, jet fuel and chemicals being made from unsorted trash from homes around the world. We must focus on using carbon for products not power, giving carbon a second chance of life. Imagine being able to look at your trash can and know that you can lock all that waste carbon into a circular system, avoiding CO2 emissions and maximizing our precious carbon resources. That is a carbon smart future!”

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