MARCH 2008

Municipal solid waste may soon fuel vehicles

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Coskata research scientists advance Coskata's proprietary microorganism to make additional ethanol in their Warrenville, Illinois pilot facility.

In the expanding race to provide alternative forms of energy, ethanol derived from municipal solid waste may soon provide yet another feedstock to power vehicles.

Masada Resource Group LLC hopes to start construction on a production facility near Middleton, New York this year to convert municipal solid waste (MSW) into ethanol. Masada is competing with other producers to finish the first commercial-scale MSW-to-ethanol plant in the United States.

The Birmingham, Alabama-based firm has received all the necessary permits for the site, said Timothy Judge, vice president of external relations and operations at Masada.

Masada has developed a patented process that converts, recycles or reuses 90 percent of the incoming waste stream from municipalities and waste haulers. To help lower the cost of the MSW-derived ethanol, the operation will utilize fees generated from waste disposal.

“The economics are very good,” Judge said. He noted that MSW is a negative cost feedstock with tipping fees in metropolitan areas ranging from $65 to $100 per ton.

The Masada facility will also use output from the facility for its own internal energy needs to lower costs. Traditional ethanol producers often need to deal with varying costs for natural gas to power the plants, plus are subject to volatile corn prices for feedstock.

Masada tested the MSW-to-ethanol process at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s pilot plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Masada purchased the test facility last year and donated it to Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Masada is also developing a process to turn paper pulp into ethanol and a process to produce aviation biofuel in conjunction with the university.

“Masada has been contacted by government and private sector partners around the United States and internationally in Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom to explore waste-to-ethanol plants,” Judge said. “Masada’s focus is on working with waste companies in emerging markets where projects can be fast-tracked.”

Masada teamed with RJ Zapata & Associates S.A., one of the largest privately-owned waste management companies in the Dominica Republic, late last year to develop and operate a commercial scale waste-to-ethanol and electricity production facility. The two companies signed a long-term joint venture to produce up to 30 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol a year.

Masada is not alone in the race to turn MSW into ethanol. Coskata Inc., based in Warrenville, Illinois, has also developed technology that enables the production of ethanol from a wide variety of materials, including MSW, biomass, and other carbonaceous materials.

Using proprietary microorganisms and a patented bioreactor design, Coskata expects to produce ethanol for under $1 per gallon. Coskata already has a test facility in Warrenville. It also has a commercial demonstration facility under construction at an undisclosed location.

“The goal of Coskata is to play a major role in creating economic fuels from renewable resources, thus minimizing the dependency of countries around the world on fuel derived from petroleum,” said Wes Bolsen, vice president and chief marketing officer at Coskata.

Bolsen said discussions are underway for a location to build a facility that would produce 50 to 100 million gallons of ethanol per year. He expects construction to start later this year. It would take two and a half years to build with production expected to start in late 2010.

“The moisture of the feedstock and how much sorting has occurred is the big thing to consider. The closer the waste looks to a construction and debris pile, the better off the process is,” Bolsen said. “Once the syngas is produced, the process is very simple. The challenge is to get a gasifier that is able to handle the variable inputs that MSW inherently produces.”

Bolsen said the Coskata proprietary microorganisms convert the syngas into ethanol at a rate of approximately 100 gallons per dry ton. He said the price of ethanol derived from MSW could even be less than $1 per gallon depending on how much of a tipping fee is involved.

“Coskata will hopefully be able to meet a significant portion of the federal mandate for ethanol through our flexible, affordable and efficient process,” Bolsen said. He said the process is feedstock flexible, enabling the use of locally abundant materials to achieve low costs.

Coskata’s ethanol is produced with a three-step conversion process that turns virtually any carbon-based feedstock, including MSW, biomass, bagasse and other agricultural waste feedstock into ethanol, making production a possibility in almost any geography, Bolsen said.

Coskata’s process is also ethanol-specific and enzyme independent, requiring no additional chemicals or pre-treatments, Bolsen said. The ethanol reduces carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 84 percent compared to conventional gasoline. It has the ability to generate 7.7 times as much energy as is required to produce the ethanol, compared to corn ethanol, which generates 1.3 times as much energy, according to Argonne National Labs.

There is already an interest in the process from car manufacturers. Detroit-based General Motors Corp. announced a partnership with Coskata in January. GM will receive its first ethanol from Coskata’s pilot plant in the fourth quarter of 2008 to be used in testing vehicles.

At the time of the announcement, GM’s Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said that the joint venture with Coskata could boost efforts for alternative fuels in markets such as China, where growing energy demand could jumpstart an effort to develop biomass ethanol.

But the next step would to be to make alternative fuel more readily available in the United States. GM has worked with businesses, universities and non-governmental organizations over the last couple of years to grow the infrastructure for E85, helping to open 300 fueling stations in 15 states.

“There is no question in my mind that making ethanol more widely available is absolutely the most effective environmentally sound solution,” Wagoner said.