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Davis company aims to clean up trash

Mike Hart’s company, Sierra Energy Corp., was featured in the White House’s  Champions of Change blog in August. His company turns garbage — whether it’s  household waste, biomass or medical waste — into clean energy or a finished product. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | September 6, 2011 |

Mike Hart wants to change the way people do garbage by churning trash into clean energy, building materials and high-paying jobs.

The president and CEO of Davis-based Sierra Energy Corp. is wrapping up testing on FastOx, a system that turns trash into liquid metal, a finished building material and a gas that can be refined into biodiesel or ethanol.

“It’s an incredibly flexible fuel that’s very, very clean,” Hart said.

FastOx won Hart accolades from the Obama administration. The president’s business council named Hart a Champion of Change last month.

“The beneficial results of a company harnessing existing technology, while innovating for the future, though, are indisputable,” wrote Ari Matusiak, executive director of the White House Business Council.

“From clearing expanding landfills to enabling battlefield soldiers to produce fuel from the waste they already generate, the possibilities of this technology are untold.”

FastOx is a new spin on old technology. Steel workers have blasted air into furnaces for decades to make iron. Hart has tweaked the process by injecting steam and oxygen together. Instead of temperatures of 2,800 degrees, Hart can get up to 4,000 degrees.

“At that temperature, everything breaks down,” he explains.

And he means everything. Food scraps, Styrofoam, plastic, metal, grass and medical waste.

“You could put in any mix of waste. You could put in dirty coal,” Hart said. “You could use it with biomass. You could use it with trash. The list is almost infinite.

“The only thing we’ve found that you shouldn’t put in there is nuclear waste.”

Sierra Energy could change the way people dispose of garbage. Like FastOx, two similar technologies are testing at McClellan, said George Crandell, vice president of operations for Technikon, a Department of Defense contractor that helps start-up companies “get through the valley of death” on the way to commercialization.

However, those technologies can handle up to 200 tons of waste a day, and only certain types of refuse.

Sierra Energy is in the final stages of testing a five-tons-per-day gasifier. However, unlike the others, FastOx can scale up to churn 3,000 to 4,000 tons a day, Crandell added, the output of a small city.

That would be more than enough for Davis residents, who produce some of the least amount of garbage in the state per person, said John Geisler, Davis Waste Removal’s operations manager. City residents and businesses threw away about 100 tons of trash each day last year, or 37,369 tons for all of 2010. Most of that heads to the Yolo County Central Landfill as part of the 480 tons processed there daily, said Linda Sinderson, landfill director.

Hart said FastOx can go even bigger than that. He has his eye on bigger cities like Los Angeles and industrializing nations like China. Hart and his workers could retrofit one of the 35 large blast furnaces still making iron in the United States, retrofitting it to process 30,000 tons of garbage each day, or 11 million tons a year.

The city of Los Angeles threw away 3.7 million tons of garbage last year, according to data from the state Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

Right now, garbage ends up in landfills, which slowly release methane into the atmosphere. Methane is 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, Crandell said.

“We’re running out of landfill space. We don’t need to be digging more landfills,” he said. “We need to be doing something else with that land. It’s a waste of energy and waste of fuel.

“We need to do something,” Crandell continued. “This is a unique opportunity.”

Yolo County has enough space for its garbage through 2080, Sinderson said, so it’s not a factor driving the county to embrace new technology. However, producing fuel, saving money and lowering greenhouse gas emissions make gasification “something we’re interested in,” she added.

Sinderson is taking a wait-and-see approach with gasification, which she said is unproven technology.

“There aren’t any full-scale projects up and running, so we don’t know how a full-scale project would operate,” she said.

“We don’t know a lot about them.”

That could change pretty quickly. Hart is in the final six months of a two-year test, Crandell said. After that, he’ll have a battle-worn product ready for the market.

— Reach Jonathan Edwards at jedwards@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @jon__edwards

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