Gasification. (Illustration: Marc Fusco)


People have been trying for decades to eliminate landfills and fight climate change by vaporizing garbage—with disappointing results. But that could be changing...

At WasteExpo 2016, the annual conference of the National Waste & Recycling Association, some 600 exhibits fill three cavernous floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Gleaming garbage trucks are on display, along with scrap metal shredders, conveyor belt systems, and pumps for spritzing deodorizer onto fetid landfills. Video screens show trash being sorted or baled, compacted or pulverized, by machines that resemble oversize Tonka toys.

The exhibitors are mostly male, and their fashion sense runs to the functional. Company-logo polos in cheerful colors predominate, tucked into khakis over middle-age paunches. But at the booth operated by a company called Sierra Energy, the vibe is different. The men’s shirts are black, and the tails hang over skinny jeans. There are women, too, in arty black dresses. The booth itself conveys an air of Zen-like mystery. What the hipsters are selling is nowhere to be seen. Instead, tufts of grass sprout from sleek pots on blond-wood tables. A banner shows two views of a trash heap—one in its unlovely natural hues, the other in a soothing shade of green. Superimposed on the images is a kind of koan: “I AM NOT GARBAGE. I AM FUEL. MONEY. OPPORTUNITY.”

Sierra Energy makes a gadget known as the FastOx gasifier, whose effect on refuse is as transformative as the banner implies. “We think of it as molecular recycling,” says CEO Mike Hart, a trim, balding 54-year-old with a jazzman’s goatee and a calmly impassioned manner. Unlike ordinary recycling, in which objects made of metal, glass, or plastic become other objects made of metal, glass, or plastic, the FastOx turns anything containing carbon—from orange peels to old tires to used syringes—into a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This syngas (the term for any gas synthesized from carbonaceous feedstock) can be burned to generate electricity or reformulated into biofuels or industrial chemicals. The hydrogen content can be used to power emission-free fuel-cell vehicles or small power plants.


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On a laptop, I watch an animation demonstrating how the device works: Shredded trash is loaded into a steel vessel the size of a shower stall and the shape of a space capsule, where an injection of oxygen and steam triggers a chemical reaction that raises the temperature to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. About 90 percent of the waste is quickly vaporized; the rest pools at the bottom as molten slag (which can be used in concrete or road base, after cooling) or liquid metal (recoverable for other purposes).

Proponents say waste gasification—whether by Sierra Energy’s method or by competing approaches—could help transform the fight against climate change. How? For one, by reducing reliance on landfills, which are among the leading human-made sources of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s up to 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Other alternatives to landfilling exist. But while recycling rates have risen in recent years (to 34 percent in the United States and 50 percent in Australia and parts of Europe), more needs to be done to stem the tide of garbage. Incineration is a less than ideal option, even when the heat from burning waste is used to run electric turbines, as is common in Scandinavia and Japan: The process releases more CO2 per megawatt-hour than coal-fired power plants, according to an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by the Environmental Justice Network, and can emit harmful dioxins, heavy metals, and particulates despite mandatory pollution controls. Incinerators also produce truckloads of toxic “bottom ash,” which is largely sent to, yes, landfills. In theory, gasifying trash is significantly cleaner and more efficient than torching it.

Gasification also could make a dent in global warming by reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Waste-derived syngas comes from previously used materials that would otherwise emit greenhouse gases through decay, rather than from hydrocarbons extracted solely for the purpose of burning. When that syngas and its byproducts are converted into energy, they release less CO2—again, theoretically—than coal or petroleum.

Sierra Energy CEO Mike Hart at his company's test facility outside Sacramento, California. (Photo: Max Whittaker)

Taking all these factors into consideration, the EPA calculates that gasifying 100 tons of waste a day instead of landfilling it could translate to a reduction of up to 66,000 tons of CO2 a year—the equivalent of taking 14,000 cars off the road by using the trash of a medium-size suburb. “I’m bullish on this technology,” says Chip Comins, chairman and CEO of the nonprofit American Renewable Energy Institute, which promotes the use of sustainable power sources. “I have high hopes that its time has come.”          

There are signs of progress. In Japan, about 100 small plants now use some version of gasification to turn trash into energy. In Europe, another handful are up and running. This summer, North America’s first full-scale municipal waste gasification project got under way in Edmonton, Alberta, where 300 tons a day—as much as is produced by about 136,000 people—are being processed into methanol at a plant run by Montreal-based Enerkem. Across the U.S., dozens of companies are jockeying for the chance to follow suit. In Florida, a start-up called Green3Power may win that race; it recently contracted to build a facility that would handle all nonrecyclable and non-compostable solid waste for St. Lucie County.

But some environmentalists argue that gasification is flawed in principle, drawing resources away from efforts to create the kind of zero-waste society that can save the planet. They also charge that gasification plants are little cleaner in practice than facilities that simply burn garbage. They note that the number of failed gasification projects over the past three decades far exceeds the successes.

Even boosters concede the last point. “We’re coming into a market that’s been brutalized with technologies that look really good but haven’t proved themselves out,” says Hart. In September, Sierra Energy is scheduled to open its first commercial facility at an Army garrison in Central California; if the FastOx passes the reality test, Hart expects to license his patented technology around the world. If things don’t go so well, however, the company could end up as yet another sacrificial victim to what critics contend is a futile dream.

The challenges to pioneers like Hart are both technological and financial, and the solutions are still being worked out. “Anyone who can avoid landfilling is my hero,” says Nickolas J. Themelis, director of Columbia University’s Earth and Environmental Engineering Center and a leading researcher in the trash-to-energy field. “But I cannot say waste gasification is working now. Not yet.”

To understand the debate over gasification, it helps to know something about its history. That heating wood or coal can produce gas was discovered in 1609 by the Flemish chemist and physician Jan Baptista van Helmont. Scientists learned to control the process by restricting the amount of air in the heating chamber and by adding such elements as steam and pressure. By the mid-1800s, synthetic coal gas was used to provide lighting and heat to urban areas across Europe and North America. It fell out of favor in the early 20th century as cheap natural gas became ubiquitous. But after fuel blockades contributed to the defeat of Germany in World War I, that country’s scientists refocused on coal gasification, developing ways to improve the quality of syngas and refine it into liquid fuels.

Gasification helped the Nazis achieve a degree of energy independence, but its use was largely abandoned after they lost the next world war. Then came the oil embargoes of the 1970s. In countries desperate for petroleum substitutes, gasification seemed to offer a reprieve. This time, attention spread beyond coal to another carbon-rich substance—garbage. Turning it into gas, experts suggested, could help relieve not only the energy crisis but also the looming waste management crisis. As populations grew and living standards rose, so did heaps of refuse. What if waste could be cleanly vaporized, instead of buried or burned, and used to reduce dependence on foreign oil?

CHO Power's gasification facility in Morcenx, France, produces 11 megawatts of electricity per year from 55,000 tons of industrial waste and biomass. (Photo: Courtesy CHO-Power.com)

Three basic approaches emerged. With conventional gasification, trash was heated to between 1,450 degrees and 3,000 degrees in the presence of a small amount of air or pure oxygen. Another process, pyrolysis, used lower temperatures and no oxygen; the idea was to generate less ash and other toxic byproducts. Plasma arc gasification, trumpeted by Wired magazine and tested by the U.S. Air Force, deployed a high-voltage electric current to create temperatures typically ranging from 7,200 degrees to 12,600 degrees, with the aim of generating more energy and even fewer pollutants per unit of fuel.

In trials with small amounts of carefully prepared feedstock, all these methods seemed promising. But attempts to scale up led to complications. Although gasification worked well with certain types of waste, such as incinerator ash or wood chips, less uniform feedstocks proved tough to process efficiently and affordably. Municipal solid waste—the unpredictable mixture millions haul out to their curb every week—was a nightmare. “As scientists, we like to see new technologies,” says Themelis. “But you don’t know what your economics will be until you build a plant and find out.”


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As the plants grew more numerous, the debacles mounted. In 1999, three executives of Swiss-based Thermoselect AG were convicted of environmental violations after an MSW gasification facility in Fondotoce, Italy, contaminated a lake with cyanide, chlorine, and nitrogen compounds. (The plant shut down soon after.) Then operating problems forced a plasma arc facility for hazardous and radioactive waste in Richland, Washington, to pull the plug, and the company that ran it filed for bankruptcy. In Honolulu, a plasma arc plant met a similar end after it got piled up with unprocessed medical waste that the contraption couldn’t handle. In Karlsruhe, Germany, another Thermoselect plant was dubbed “Thermodefect” by the local press before it closed in 2004. The plant had consumed vast quantities of natural gas to heat the waste while delivering far less electricity than promised to the local grid. Operations had been suspended repeatedly because of excessive emissions of nitrogen oxide, dioxins, and other pollutants. During two years of operation, it had processed only one-fifth of its contracted 450,000 tons of MSW. Its owners lost $500 million.

This problematic track record caught the attention of activists, who began protesting gasification plants wherever they were proposed. Planned facilities in Lebanon, Austria, and Poland and more than a dozen locations across America were blocked. Yet projects continued to be launched, and there were more high-profile flops. The biggest happened in April, in Teesside, England, when a twin-plant plasma facility for MSW—built at a cost of nearly $1 billion and plagued by technical delays—went out of business before commissioning was complete.

The odyssey of St. Lucie County, Florida, vividly illustrates the uncertainties—over the technology’s viability and the ability of its promoters to deliver on their sales pitches—facing any municipality that hopes to solve its solid waste problems via gasification. A semi-urbanized chunk of beachfront and former swampland on the Atlantic coast, St. Lucie (population: 300,000) has long trucked its trash to a landfill outside Fort Pierce, the county seat. Seeking a more sustainable alternative, officials signed an agreement with Atlanta-based Geoplasma in 2007 to build a plasma arc plant that would use MSW to generate electricity. But estimates of how much trash the facility could process kept shrinking, and citizens—backed by the Philippines-based Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and other environmental groups—raised an uproar over potential pollution. When the recession hit, and Geoplasma failed to secure funding, the project died.

A Sierra Energy employee pours prepared feedstock into the company's gasifier at its test facility. (Photo: Max Whittaker)

Before long, St. Lucie’s solid waste director, Ron Roberts, began trying to revive it. Roberts had become a believer in the promise of gasification. “If it’s done properly,” he says, “you can process municipal waste in an environmentally sound manner for less cost than landfilling.” His department put out a call for proposals and received six responses. The strongest, Roberts and his colleagues agreed, came from a Fort Lauderdale company called Green3Power, whose planned plant could consume all of the county’s MSW after recycling and composting—750 tons a day. The facility would use an improved version of conventional gasification, making its operation cheaper and simpler than Geoplasma’s system; because it would produce biodiesel rather than electricity, its bottom line would be bolstered by state and federal “green fuel” subsidies. More than 200 jobs would be created. Green3Power, along with its parent company, BioPower Operations, would be responsible for raising the $175 million needed to build the plant. Whatever happened, St. Lucie would not be left holding the bag.

Another plus for Roberts was that Green3Power’s president and CEO, Neil D. Williams, was a veteran waste management engineer. A former professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Williams was one of the developers of the protective liners used in modern landfills. A few years back, he had helped the county solve a problem with leachate disposal, sharply reducing costs. “He’s very, very, very bright,” says Roberts.

But Williams, who doubled as BioPower’s director, had never built a gasification plant. His previous efforts to break into the business were far from successful. In 1998, he started a company called Innviron, which operated waste-related facilities in several countries. Between 2008 and 2012, Innviron approached four cities in Argentina with gasification proposals; the projects fell through after local journalists cast doubt on the economic feasibility and environmental safety of the plans, leading to massive protests. “Our experience…was that Innviron was not serious about completing projects, and was willing to make misleading claims in order to secure contracts,” the president of the country’s largest environmental organization later explained in a public statement.


Shrink Your Waste

Next, Williams launched EnviroPower Management, whose Indian subsidiary signed an agreement to build an MSW gasification facility for the state of Kerala. That plan was canceled in 2013, after The Times of India reported on the Argentine fiasco, accused EnviroPower of lying about its experience building other plants, and discovered that Kerala officials had ignored the recommendation of their advisory committee not to award the contract.

In 2014, Williams’ new company, EnviroPower Renewable, was denied permits for a proposed plant in North Las Vegas, Nevada, after activists learned of the overseas misadventures. In Limerick County, Ireland, another planned project has reached an apparent impasse after nearly two years of intense controversy.    

On the websites of EnviroPower Renewable and Green3Power, the North Las Vegas and Limerick plants are listed, along with projects in Nigeria, Kenya, Kosovo, Mexico, Egypt, and England, as if they’re going forward. In my web searches, I could find no evidence that some of these far-flung undertakings exist; instead, I turned up dead ends, dead links, and the fake-looking website—since expired—of a company whose name mimicked that of a major Pakistani drilling-supply firm. (Its ostensible CEO posted a Twitter feed consisting of three photos of his supposed “Meeting with Chinaies for Waste waste to energy project [sic],” along with a patriotic slogan and a list of Muslim commandments.) There were news items from 2014, in Albanian, reporting that a contract had been signed for the plant in Kosovo, but later articles said the project had stalled. I found one reference to the proposed Egyptian plant, on an Arabic-language news site, but no indication that it’s actually happening. When I Googled the Swedish consulting firm credited with arranging several of these ventures, the only hits I got were the terse LinkedIn profile of its general manager, a Virgin Islands corporate registry, and the Panama Papers roster of offshore shell companies.

What this trail of false starts and dubious deals portends for St. Lucie is anybody’s guess. Williams did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, and Roberts stopped returning my calls and emails after our initial conversation. So far, the county's latest gasification plan seems to have gone largely unnoticed, even by residents; when I spoke with activists who’d helped lead the opposition to the Geolasma project, they said they hadn’t heard about this one. (News coverage has been sparse.) The funding is reportedly in place, though, and construction is expected to begin in November.

If the facility is completed, it will be the first full-scale gasification plant for MSW in the United States. But will it escape the fate of so many of its predecessors? An answer can be found in BioPower’s annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, filed earlier this year. “There can be no assurance,” the document declares, “that we will ever bring…a [waste-to-energy] facility into operation.”   

Whether waste gasification can become widely viable is one vexed question; whether it should is another. Former chemistry professor Paul Connett, author of The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time, travels the world to support anti-incineration efforts. Most gasification plants, he argues, are simply dual chamber incinerators; by burning syngas as soon as it’s created, they wind up being only marginally cleaner than conventional mass burn facilities. Plants that cool the gas and refine it into fuels (like those planned by Sierra Energy and Green3Power), he acknowledges, could be a greener option—assuming they function as cleanly as promised, which they often have not.

But like his comrades in groups such as GAIA and the Sierra Club, Connett contends that vaporizing waste, even if done with few emissions, is a poor solution to the landfill problem. “You use a huge amount of energy in extracting virgin materials and moving them around the planet,” he says. “Then you use more energy to manufacture products from these materials. And then you burn them! You’re recovering a few pennies’ worth of energy at best.”

Instead, he argues, industrial societies must radically revamp their systems of product design, manufacture, distribution, and consumption to avoid creating waste in the first place—and to ensure that further down the line, virtually all materials are reused, recycled, or composted. “The only solution to all these things is grassroots activism, organizing at the community level,” Connett says. Widespread adoption of gasification, he adds, would slow progress toward that zero-waste utopia by encouraging the continued production of trash.       

Some environmentalists dispute this assessment. Zero waste is a worthy goal, they say, but it could take decades to get there; meanwhile, landfills continue to grow, belching as much as 3.6 tons of methane for every ton of trash. (In 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, the United States alone generated an estimated 254 million tons of solid waste; more than half of it went to the dump.) Nor is climate change the only issue: As their impermeable liners age, landfills can also leach toxins into groundwater. If gasification can help reduce such harms, supporters insist, rejecting it would be like rejecting electric cars because much of the grid still runs on fossil fuels. “We have to work with the economy that exists,” says Chip Comins, “and convert it from within.”

At present, most U.S. municipalities use single-stream recycling to increase participation; some people are too lazy to separate glass, plastic, and paper, and others don’t like multiple trucks rumbling through their neighborhoods once a week to collect the materials. Because of the damage and contamination that result in a single-stream system, about a quarter of recyclables can’t be used. Even under the best of circumstances, says Mary Solecki, a policy advocate at Environmental Entrepreneurs (a lobbying group affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Fund), studies show that only 75 to 80 percent of MSW is recyclable or compostable. “If we could convert whatever’s left to energy,” she says, “then we could—at least in theory—eliminate the need for landfilling.”

Around the globe, businesses are scrambling to cash in on that notion, defying the parade of failures in hopes of grabbing a chunk of the future. In Japan, where 70 percent of trash goes to waste-to-energy incinerators (thanks to high landfill costs and government subsidies for thermal conversion plants), gasification’s small market share is growing. In China, four cities recently ordered gasifiers, manufactured by a subsidiary of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, for their municipal waste. A Norwegian company, Energos, operates six MSW plants in its home country and one each in Germany and England; they’re functioning well, after some early glitches, and six more are under development. Facilities in France and Finland, built by local enterprises, completed commissioning this year. In the U.S., waste-to-fuel company Fulcrum BioEnergy signed an agreement to provide 800 barrels of biocrude daily to the petro giant Tesoro, starting in 2018, from a plant to be built outside Reno, Nevada.

In California, Mike Hart is preparing to begin transforming trash into fuel, electricity, and—ideally—money at Fort Hunter Liggett, an Army training base in Monterey County. In 2003, the serial entrepreneur was invited to judge the Big Bang! business-plan competition at the University of California, Davis, graduate school of management. One of the contestants, Chris Kasten, showed up with a device invented by Kasten’s grandfather and a colleague, former engineers at Kaiser Steel. It was a blast furnace modified to turn trash into fuel. The men had conceived it as a way to make iron production less polluting; eventually, they realized that their brainchild could also be used to vaporize garbage, generating income from sales of syngas and hydrogen, as well as fees from municipalities wishing to divert waste from landfills. But their contract with Kaiser prohibited them from selling the idea, so they passed it on to Kasten.

Sierra Energy's FastOx gasifier is about the size of a shower stall. (Photo: Max Whittaker)

When Hart heard Kasten’s pitch (which won the competition and $2,000), it struck him that this might be the most efficient, cost-effective, and scalable trash gasifier ever devised. He bought the patents, founded Sierra Energy, and built his first prototype. After nearly a decade of tinkering, he won a $3 million grant from the Department of Defense to develop a commercial-scale system—making FastOx the first waste-to-energy technology acquired by the Pentagon. The California Energy Commission kicked in another $5 million. In trials of a demonstration model at a DOD testing site outside Sacramento, one ton of waste (about as much as 350 U.S. homes produce each day) produced 1,580 kilowatt-hours of electricity (enough to power an average home for a month and a half) and 42 gallons of fuel.

The plant at Fort Hunter Liggett is designed to process 20 tons of waste a day. Military planners hope waste gasification will reduce the armed services’ energy bills, as well as casualties associated with running fuel convoys through war zones. Hart envisions gasifiers in 50,000 communities, cutting the noise and pollution from garbage trucks, the methane emissions from landfills, and the environmental destruction and geopolitical disasters associated with the extraction, refining, and burning of fossil fuels.

Sierra Energy plans to license its technology (starting price: just under $7 million) to qualified buyers, in part through online auctions. The company has been approached, Hart reports, by hundreds of potential customers—landfill operators, small-town mayors, brothers of prime ministers—from many nations. So far, he has tentative agreements with 18. If the new plant performs well, he figures, the orders will start pouring in.

“Nobody wants to have serial number one, but people are lining up to have number two,” Hart says. “We’re going to fight climate change with profit, because that’s what caused it in the first place.”           

ul 22, 2016

Los Angeles–based Kenneth Miller has written for Time, Discover, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times Magazine, and many other publications.

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