Rapunzel, Rapunzel: Getting the hydrogen we need from the garbage we don’t

January 29, 2020 |

It wouldn’t shock anyone to learn that there’s hydrogen trapped inside of municipal solid waste, just as there’s $7 trillion worth of gold dissolved in the Earth’s oceans, some say, and that there’s a planet out there that’s probably made of solid diamond. 

Like Rapunzel of the Grimm’s fairytale cycle, trapped by a sorceress inside a tower where all those who desire her cannot reach her.

In the case of municipal solid waste, we have too much, everyone knows it. Everyone knows the problem of waste, waste begins where profitable extraction leaves off. The better the extraction technologies are at cost and yield, the less of a waste crisis we have, it’s that simple. All the hand-wringing over re-cycling, littering, landfills, oceanfill, skyfill — all of it, is about the yearning for better technology.

In the case of municipal solid waste, there are a couple of reasons why hydrogen might be a smart target, and why gasification is the best route, where we use heat to convert mixed waste streams to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. With gasification, we shift from a most complex heterogenous mess with vastly differing particle sizes, hardness, thickness, viscosities, water contents and so forth, into one of nature’s easiest to handle materials, known as syngas.

In their own way, the target markets of solid waste management and the rapidly building hydrogen economy are a little like that planet composed entirely of diamond. Ways2H touts that we spend, globally, $400 billion on solid waste and the hydrogen economy is tipped to reach $2.5 trillion by 2050 — or certainly, one day.  

So, why isn’t everyone targeting hydrogen from waste? Mastering the technology is, as we used to say in Australia, “hard yakka,” a tough assignment. In that context, let’s look today at Ways2H, a new contender on the scene well worth knowing about.

The Ways2H backstory

Essentially, the Ways2H technology is a story in advanced gasification, which is to say that waste materials are heated until they result in that soupy mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide known as syngas.

Ways2H Inc. is a partnership between Clean Energy Enterprises, a Long Beach based Clean Tech management company, and Japan Blue Energy Corporation (JBEC), the developer of the Ways2H process. Ways2H is the worldwide engineering, manufacturing and maintenance provider for the solutions that embed the Ways2H process.

The Ways2H demonstration unit

So, as CEO Jean-Louis Kindler explained to the Digest, “JBEC has developed a very efficient process that can handle organic waste  and extract hydrogen. The partnership is doing engineering, and R&D to further develop and new generations for the technology.”

The Competitive edge

In the advanced bioeconomy, most applications are targeting the carbon when it comes to syngas, hence the use of exotic catalysts to produce hydrocarbons, and many systems combust a portion of the biomass to generate the process heat to make syngas. Usual problems in this space are having the right amount of oxygen, a consistent stream of material, the temperature of the system, waste handling to get the MSW into particle size, catalyst life, and yield.

This particular approach eliminates some of these challenges. For one, the target is hydrogen, meaning the carbon monoxide can be combusted to create process heat and energy, no wastage of hydrogen molecules. And, no need for a catalyst because we are not trying to split the CO to make carbon to form hydrocarbons from. 

Here’s the basic deal: Ways2H systems convert organic waste streams, including plastics, into hydrogen. They do not reject hazardous elements, are self-sustainable, scalable and have a small footprint that makes them suitable for decentralized waste treatment and clean energy production, thus addressing the major problem of logistics in both industries.

Kindler struck some attractive notes in describing the tech, because, for one, he noted that there’s little or no tar created by the process. Which is music to the ears of those who’ve had to deal with too much sludge and too much tar. Given that we’re talking about MSW, obviously there’s the attraction of handling mixed waste streams.

But a couple other process notes are of real interest. We heard “no use of partial oxidation”, “better control of temperature,” “much cleaner gas at output,” “little or no nitrogen or oxygen in the gas stream’,” and we heard that the system does not require as much precision when it comes to size and volume of particles — not quite as clean, not quite as well sorted as the other guy’s waste? Here’s an opportunity for you, friend.


Another point of differentiation: scale. Right now, these are 1 ton per day units, and mobile in character, transportable in a couple of 20 foot containers. So, it supports making hydrogen near the point of waste production — perhaps more key, making hydrogen near the point of consumption. Near landfills are industry, industries that need hydrogen for fuel cells, stationery or in support of hydrogen vehicles. And mining and oil industries utilize hydrogen.  Or, “it can be power production for the microgrid,” Kindler observed.

Path to commercial

The partners, back in Japan, currently have demonstrator running that has built of 6000-7000 hours of run time and operational data. It’s on the 1-ton scale that we have for the first commercial unit — which is a rarity, a demonstration at commercial scale. Makes the data more plausible, though the engineering for the final unit will vary from the demonstration to take into account lessons learned.

Right now, with an un-named engineering partner, Ways2H is currently building the first unit, and looks to instal and commence running the system in California ·the company is HQ’d in Long Beach) at the end of the summer or early fall, according to Kindler.


All Feedstocks!

Well, that’s what a lot of systems say, isn’t it? But gasification systems have a stronger track record in that department. Specifically, Kindler mentioned using medical waste and plastics — and those are two points of differentiation from a lot of systems out there which target organic waste. Some of those others can’t use the plastic which can make up to 33 percent of the waste stream, and they don’t generate enough heat to destroy what needs to be destroyed in medical waste situations.

Which of course, in the feedstock note, suggests that the system generates big temperatures — medical waste needs those. But there’s a nice fit, for example, for a large hospital system in search of renewable power. Fuel cells provide the power, the system consumes the waste.

Feedstock Requirements 

Ah, but it’s not quite the case that it’s ANY feedstock in ANY condition. Kindler notes that preprocessing is required to take out the metals fraction from a waste stream, to shred the material to reduce and make uniform the particle size. And because the system can tolerate up to 10 percent or so in terms of water content, some drying is going to be in order because organic waste comes in wet.

Next milestones

Stand by for later news this spring on project flow, and the first unit going online some time in the Q3 horizon.


Yields? 50 KG of hydrogen per ton of biomass. The system will require tipping fees to be competitive — widely available at this time for mixed waste streams. The unit economics are competitive with $5 per gallon of gas equivalent (gge). That’s without carbon credits, which might be substantial — this technology could go carbon negative with any kind of decent carbon capture system to trap the CO2 that’s emitted when CO is combusted for process energy.

Those economics are based on the 1-ton per day unit, which is impressive. But subject to confirmation, after all, we have a demo unit in Japan at this stage in terms of actual field data.

Bottom line for clientele, what’s the payback time? Kindler advises that its in the standard range for industrial equipment — generally that’s meant sub-five years, sub-three years for many players.

The Bottom Line

There’s much to learn on actual unit economics and customer reaction to some of these application concepts, but of course everyone’s who’s bullish on hydrogen is generally so for reasons that apply to this technology. Early days, but one well worth watching.

The website is still under construction, but you can learn more about the technology here.

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