Twenty miles east of Reno, Nevada, garbage trucks skip the landfill and stop at Fulcrum BioEnergy, where tons of egg shells, coffee grinds, mattresses and other refuse are dumped into a large holding area.
Two hours later, this garbage leaves the facility transformed into jet fuel, as part of an ambitious effort funded by private investors and the federal government to create cheap green energy.
“We’re producing a newer alternative, cleaner-burning fuel that the market demands, and we’re doing it in a manner that saves money for consumers and makes a profit for our investors,” says Fulcrum BioEnergy president and CEO Jim Macias. “It feels real good to be able to help our government and military with what they consider important national security agenda and issues.”
Fulcrum BioEnergy converts household trash into biofuel for airplanes. The company’s Reno processing plant will be fully operational by second quarter of 2019, and Fulcrum has already partnered with several waste management companies to save garbage from landfills and cut their own input costs.
Fulcrum operates an ethanol plant in North Carolina where, motivated by investor demands for a cheaper input than corn, it started testing turning trash to fuel in 2014. After about three years of trying, the company developed a successful process for converting municipal solid waste to energy. From that point on, their business pivoted.
“Let’s face it—there will never, ever be a shortage of garbage,” the Fulcrum website reads. Indeed, the average American produces about 4.5 pounds of trash per day. One way to use this waste for profit is to create a super fuel.
Once garbage is delivered to Fulcrum’s Sierra Processing Plant, pushers guide the waste down a conveyer belt that shreds it into two-inch long pieces. Workers clad in traffic vests, thick gloves and safety goggles help pull paper, wood, fabrics and textiles from this shredded pile—only organic materials can be used to create fuel.
This shredded garbage, or feedstock, is then sent over to the biorefinery, where it undergoes a “gasification” process that involves heating waste under pressure to produce synthesis gas, which is a combination of carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
From there, the synthesis gas enters a tube in which the gas reacts with a secret catalyst to condense into liquid fuel—a step called the Fischer-Tropsch process.
“It meets all of the same performance criteria” as petroleum, says Joanne Ivancic, executive director of the advocacy group Advanced Biofuels USA. “Renewable jet fuel is cleaner, runs cooler, and they say they’ll probably have less maintenance when they use renewable jet fuel because it’s not as hard on the engines.”
To read the full story, visit http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/could-garbage-fuel-airplanes-180962261/.