Twenty miles east of Reno, Nevada, garbage trucks skip the landfill and stop at Fulcrum BioEnergy, where tons of egg shells, coffee grinds, mattresses and other refuse are dumped into a large holding area.
Two hours later, this garbage leaves the facility transformed into jet fuel, as part of an ambitious effort funded by private investors and the federal government to create cheap green energy.
“We’re producing a newer alternative, cleaner-burning fuel that the market demands, and we’re doing it in a manner that saves money for consumers and makes a profit for our investors,” says Fulcrum BioEnergy president and CEO Jim Macias. “It feels real good to be able to help our government and military with what they consider important national security agenda and issues.”
Fulcrum BioEnergy converts household trash into biofuel for airplanes. The company’s Reno processing plant will be fully operational by second quarter of 2019, and Fulcrum has already partnered with several waste management companies to save garbage from landfills and cut their own input costs.
Fulcrum operates an ethanol plant in North Carolina where, motivated by investor demands for a cheaper input than corn, it started testing turning trash to fuel in 2014. After about three years of trying, the company developed a successful process for converting municipal solid waste to energy. From that point on, their business pivoted.
“Let’s face it—there will never, ever be a shortage of garbage,” the Fulcrum website reads. Indeed, the average American produces about 4.5 pounds of trash per day. One way to use this waste for profit is to create a super fuel.
Once garbage is delivered to Fulcrum’s Sierra Processing Plant, pushers guide the waste down a conveyer belt that shreds it into two-inch long pieces. Workers clad in traffic vests, thick gloves and safety goggles help pull paper, wood, fabrics and textiles from this shredded pile—only organic materials can be used to create fuel.
This shredded garbage, or feedstock, is then sent over to the biorefinery, where it undergoes a “gasification” process that involves heating waste under pressure to produce synthesis gas, which is a combination of carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
From there, the synthesis gas enters a tube in which the gas reacts with a secret catalyst to condense into liquid fuel—a step called the Fischer-Tropsch process.
“It meets all of the same performance criteria” as petroleum, says Joanne Ivancic, executive director of the advocacy group Advanced Biofuels USA. “Renewable jet fuel is cleaner, runs cooler, and they say they’ll probably have less maintenance when they use renewable jet fuel because it’s not as hard on the engines.”
Depending on the waste partner agreement, Fulcrum pays nothing, or close-to-nothing, for the garbage that starts its process. United Airlines, the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific airline and Air BP are all equity investors in Fulcrum, and have long-term jet fuel supply agreements in place to buy a combined 1.4 billion gallons per year once the plant starts production.
The Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture have also guaranteed more than $105 million in loans for Fulcrum to develop this new facility. The Department of Defense too granted Fulcrum $70 million in 2014.
“The objective is to benefit our country in terms of energy independence, and remove dependence from petrol, and create jobs and economic development in rural communities,” says Mark Brodziski, deputy administrator of energy programs for USDA Rural Development.
Soma Bhadra, CEO of Proteus Consulting, which works with biofuel companies, says government funding and private investment are spurring growth for companies like Fulcrum, but wonders whether consumer demand is strong enough to inspire airlines to invest in biofuels.
“When there is market potential, and United, Cathay Pacific say, ‘We are going to increase the cost of tickets by 20 percent, we’re going to run completely on bioenergy,’ and the people are willing to buy that—then you will see that those things will take off,” Bhadra says.
She says Fulcrum has an advantage over other municipal solid waste companies because its fuel can compete with the cheap fossil fuels. According to Fulcrum, its fuel production costs less than $1 per gallon, which is 50 percent less than the average price of oil, according to the Department of Energy.
Cheap oil is an issue that has plagued biofuels companies like Solena Group, which transforms biomass such as municipal solid waste, grass and wood into energy.
“They were getting ready to put something together in the U.K. but with gas so cheap, they couldn’t compete,” Ivancic says of Solena.
Ivancic said Fulcrum is one of the only municipal solid waste energy companies to be fully funded, although she says she wonders how sustainable Fulcrum’s pricing really is.
“Municipal solid waste is not consistent every day,” Ivancic says. “What comes in isn’t exactly the way it was the day before so all your processes need to be very flexible or you need a broad approach. I’d guess the folks at Fulcrum are challenged with how they’re dealing with using MSW.”
Fulcrum Vice President of Administration Rick Barazza says that the individual items used to generate the company’s fuel aren’t as important as the sum of the carbon content collected. The amount of carbon Fulcrum gets from its wood, paper, plastics and textile waste is generally steady.
“With this consistent amount of carbon, the production of fuel will remain fairly consistent,” he says.
Once Fulcrum’s plant is active, the company plans to transform about 200,000 tons of garbage into about 11 million gallons of fuel per year. Independent emissions consultants from the USDA say Fulcrum’s fuel is 80 percent cleaner than petroleum. The electricity generated during the process is also used to power the Sierra Plant.
Fulcrum plans to build more plants in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Houston and New Jersey by 2022. For now, though, the company is focusing on turning more garbage trucks into its Reno facility, rather than the nearby landfill.
“It’s a neat idea, it’s an exciting idea and, more important, it’s an idea that works,” Barazza says of the new fuel.
This post was originally published on SmithsonianMag.com.