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Aug 262009

From Green Right Now Reports

Terrabon LLC, a Houston company that’s been investigating making fuel from waste for more than a decade, announced this week that waste collection giant Waste Management of Houston will become an investment partner.

WM, along with existing investment partner Valero Energy Corporation, hopes to make Terrabon’s vision of producing gasoline from waste a viable green alternative fuel within about two years.

Terrabon, unlike ethanol producers, will make its fuel from sewage, human solid waste and organic food garbage, not food stock. And it’s output will be a virtual chemical match (but at a higher octane) for the stuff that’s already powering your car or truck, not a gasoline additive. This key difference means that the Terrabon fuel can be added directly to the existing gasoline fuel stream, a convenience that the company is promoting as an easy, green way to reduce US reliance on foreign oil.

This process, which Terrabon calls MixAlco could displace some yet undetermined percentage of crude oil in gasoline without any special infrastructure, once it’s distilled from the sewage or organic waste that serves as its “feedstock” or base material. Or so the plan goes.

The company has been developing this proprietary technology by supporting research led by chemical engineering professor Dr. Mark T. Holtzapple at Texas A&M University since the 1990s. It hopes to have a fermentation facility up and running at Port Arthur in 2011.

We asked Terrabon CFO Malcolm F. McNeill to explain the firm’s unique process:

Q: Can you elaborate on the chemical process you’re using?

A: The process begins with biomass. We’ll take municipal solid waste and we’ll treat it, break down the lignin. That exposes the cellulose and then we ferment it anaerobically.

Q: How long does that take?

A: There’s a “pile method” – like a compost pile in an enclosed anaerobic environment. That can take a month to six weeks (to ferment). The other method is “submerged fermentation.” We’re building a facility in Port Arthur for that. And that takes just a few weeks. It’s (the solid waste) submerged in water with inoculants.

Q: What is the next step?

A: The fermentation creates these organic salts which are loaded with carbon and hydrogen…We process them into ketones and then put them into a gasoline reactor. We apply heat, and that breaks ketones down into gasoline molecules.

Q: It sounds like that could go right into a gasoline engine?

A: It could, but we don’t. Our idea is to put it into the refiner’s stream….So it’s blended with gasoline that’s produced from oil…

Q: At what proportion?

A: The proportion is still pretty low. We’ll add to a refinery that’s producing millions of gallons (of gasoline) a day and we may add 10,000 gallons a day to that. (Or more: A 220-ton per day facility would produce 5.5 million gallons per year, assuming a 245 day/year work schedule, that would equate to roughly 16,000 gallons per day of input to the gasoline stream.)

The point is, it does reduce our dependence on foreign oil and it’s much cleaner than petroleum gasoline.

Q: It sounds like it’s quite green and sustainable?

A: We’ve found a 180 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions – if you look at the whole process…

Q: You mean compared to the carbon footprint of pulling crude oil from the earth, shipping it here and refining it?

A: Yes, comparing that to our process of collecting waste and processing it. Blue Source Canada, which does carbon assessments for companies, did the evaluation…

Q: And there seems to be a synergy here with the waste company being in Houston and the gasoline partner (Valero) in San Antonio.

A: Yes, we can create the organic salts by creating a facility close to where there’s a waste collection area. The other benefit is that (this process) requires very little adjustment of existing infrastructure. We can easily ship the salts to a blending station or refinery.

Q: So there are more options for mixing it with the gasoline; that can be done regionally?

A: Yes.

Q: And this investment from Waste Management must be a critical piece in moving forward?

There’s a serious framework in place now to collect the feedstock that we need and to deliver the resulting product in to the marketplace. Valero is the key to that side of the operation and Waste management is key to delivering the feedstock.

A Waste Management spokesman said the new partnership will help its company meet sustainability goals of doubling its renewable energy production and investing in emerging technologies that put waste to use.

Terrabon also produces gasoline from sorghum biomass at a biofuels research facility in Bryan, Texas, near A&M.