At the landfill in Florida’s Indian River County–an area partway between Orlando and Palm Beach–garbage trucks deliver more than 100,000 tons of yard waste from local lawns and golf courses in a year. But by 2018, if all goes as planned, instead of going in the dump, those grass clippings and tree branches will go next door to a new plant that will turn them into a replacement for petroleum. The product will have a tiny carbon footprint compared to the fossil fuel equivalent–and will also be cheaper to produce.
It’s a process that the company plans to scale up and license to others to be used to make both plastics (which are now made from petroleum) and fuel. And they say that there’s enough plant waste available in the country to make it a feasible replacement for industries that rely on fossil fuels.
“There is enough green waste in the United States to replace all petroleum-based products,” says Daniel de Liege, chairman of Alliance Bio-Products, the startup that plans to open the new plant. “All diesel fuel, gasoline, jet fuel, everything that we use petroleum for. There’s enough green waste in this country that, if this technology was deployed wide instantly, we could replace the use of all oil.”
According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, there are around 400 million tons of cellulose-based waste–from farm and forestry waste to urban wood waste–available in the U.S. every year. In addition, de Liege says, there are another 800 million tons of waste, such as grass clippings from backyards, not counted in the NREL data. In total, the U.S. produces roughly 1.2 billion tons of cellulosic waste annually, which could be converted into an amount equal to the 120 billion gallons of fuel used in the U.S. each year.
The new process, which was developed and patented by researchers at the University of Central Florida and licensed to the startup, uses inexpensive components and materials. The plant waste goes into large tubes, where ball bearings interact with kaolinite clay–essentially dirt, which has a natural pH level that facilitates the process–to break down cellulose into sugar.
Once the cellulose in plants is broken down into sugar, it’s possible to ferment that sugar to create alcohol that can be used to make fuels or turned into a base for making plastic for packaging, clothing, carpet, or a myriad of other products (rather than making ethylene, a basic ingredient in plastic, from fossil fuels, it can be made from ethanol). Other companies have attempted to scale up similar technology in the past. But previous processes have been much more expensive, and companies have struggled to make it viable.
Many processes use enzymes to break down cellulose, but those enzymes have to be replaced, adding to the expense. Others use acids that quickly corrode equipment. Another process, called steam explosion, heats water to more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit under extreme pressure, and can also quickly wear down equipment. Traditional methods also don’t work well with a mix of materials, because they require consistency; Alliance says its method works well with any plant materials.
“Over the years various large companies such as BP, Shell, Dupont, [and] POET have spent literally billions of dollars chasing the cracking of the cellulosic code,” says de Liege. “Breaking down plant material is very difficult.”
“The three biggest components of cost for a cellulosic plant–one is feedstock, one is capital cost, the third is enzyme cost if they’re using an enzymatic process,” says Wallace Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
Alliance’s feedstock–yard waste–is free (in some locations, conceivably, the company could even be paid to take the waste, because that would be cheaper than paying a landfill a tipping fee). Because the company is repurposing an existing plant instead of building a new one, its capital costs are low. Its enzyme is very low-cost. All of this makes it possible to produce the sugar it needs to make ethanol very cheaply. If you bought sugar on the commodities market, de Liege says, it costs about 35 cents a pound. If you make sugar from cornstarch, as happens in the traditional method for producing ethanol, it can cost around 14 cents a pound; sugar cane can cost as much as 18 cents. The new process creates sugar for less than five cents a pound.
The company says that works out to be the equivalent of a barrel of oil at $18; a barrel of oil currently costs around $50. “So we are less expensive than petroleum,” he says. “We are vastly less expensive than traditional sugar methods, and that gives the ability to use our sugars to create these products economically for the first time.”
The new plant will be in a former, failed biofuel plant, which the startup is in the process of purchasing. It plans to acquire similar plants around the country to help avoid large capital costs. They also plan to begin licensing the technology to others, like plastics manufacturers, to use elsewhere; the company recently sub-licensed the tech to a soon-to-be-built plant in Bakersfield, California. Their own first plant, which the startup expects to begin operating at full capacity in 2018, will focus on producing fuel called cellulosic ethanol, which it says produces 85% to 95% less greenhouse gases than petroleum-based products. Like other ethanol, cellulosic ethanol can be blended with gas and used in typical cars.
Because the technology is modular, they say that it could be deployed anywhere–in factories, mobile units in trucks, villages in India, remote islands without their own source of fuel, or Navy ships. “As the Navy is steaming toward a far away conflict, it can be processing algae and fleet waste into jet fuel,” he says. That could include food waste from the thousands of sailors living on board. “And when it gets to this forward operating base, you can remove this unit and stick it out in the middle of a jungle at an airstrip and you can create your own fuel right there as opposed to having these long logistical lines of gas trucks running back and forth through enemy territory.” The base could grow algae and hydroponic crops to use in the process.
While some other attempts at producing sugar from plants have required land and resources to grow those plants, the startup says that isn’t necessary. “We have plenty of green waste,” says de Liege. “And the beauty of this process, as opposed to some of the others, is we don’t need to grow an energy crop. We don’t need to take up valuable agricultural lands that can be used to produce food . . . we can use the waste of those products. We can use paper waste. We can use lawn waste. . . . We have the feedstock. We just need the will to deploy this wide.”