CLEANTECH: Recycling to Ethanol

By Published On: February 15, 2008

Like many of you out there, every week I carefully separate the green waste from the trash from the glass and paper and plastics. We’ve been promised by our garbage companies and our local governments that the trash goes in the landfill, which is guilt-ridden, but that the other stuff gets used, somehow, somewhere. Yeah, and there’s a pot of free high test gas at the end of the rainbow. Turns out, according to a cellulosic ethanol company called BlueFire, that much of our dearly departed recycling still ends up with the garbage in our landfills. The newly public company has a plan to have garbage trucks stop first at their small-time ethanol manufacturing sites in, or next to, the landfill, and drop off usable green waste and wood-based recycling to be turned into fuel. The first site for this plan is at the lovely Lancaster landfill in California. The company expects to create 3.1 million gallons of cellulosic-based fuel a year there using a chemical process and a cogeneration plant also fueled by waste. That’s not a lot of fuel. Probably about what you’d find from one gas station in Ventura. But it could be a start. BlueFire’s process nets about 70 gallons per ton of waste, chief executive officer Arnie Klann, tells me. The small process produces about 280 gallons/day, he added. It also diverts all that waste from being buried in a landfill. The biomass waste is chipped up, then soaked with sulfuric acid, that apparently unlocks the sugar molecules in the waste so the resulting goo can be fermented. “We squeeze the beejebers out of it,” says Klann. “What’s leftover is lignon.” Klann adds that the whole cost of the process results in ethanol that is cheaper than corn-based ethanol. He estimates it will end up at about $1/gal. Oh, and on top of that the company plans to reap “huge carbon credits” because it will be taking the greenhouse gas methane out of landfills. The garbage companies are happy too, he says. They pay less for dump fees because they have less to dump, but they still get paid the same from you and me to pick up our waste every week.

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