Traditional methods of producing ethanol generally revolve around the digestion of waste plant matter from farms, switchgrass, corn, or even rice husks. BlueFire Ethanol of Irvine, California, however, has plans to build a facility later this year that will be able to produce 3 millions gallons of ethanol each year, from trash. That's right, your unwanted waste might one day find its way into your fuel tank.
Their current process, using sorted garbage can produce 70 gallons of fuel per ton of waste. They hope to improve this to reach 100 gallons per ton. Any way you look at it, it's good news. Trash is cheap, and by locating their plants next to landfills, which they are doing, their source of raw materials is right next door, meaning that expensive feedstock doesn't need to be trucked in. This allows the ethanol to be cheaper than traditional processes.
Instead of using microorganisms to break down plant matter, BlueFire is using a concentrated acid hydrolysis process, where sulfuric acid is sprayed onto the trash, which is then submerged in a bath and pressed. The resulting mash is then fermented into ethanol and the acid reclaimed to use again. In addition to the plant they are currently building, two more are in the works producing 17 and 55 millions gallons respectively.
"When you are talking about waste streams, there are maybe 15 or 20 landfills in the U.S. that could sustain a 100- to 150-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant," says CEO Arnie Klann. "We're looking at those locations to build out, but the vast majority of landfills will handle that 17 million-gallon-per-year size."
We already know cellulosic ethanol works, so if they can produce it from trash at the right price and enough output, BlueFire can position themselves to be big competitors in the market against producers like Range Fuel, who is building the US’s first cellulosic ethanol plant with a goal to produce 100 million gallons of fuel a year from tree waste, or even nudging up with Coskata (who is already producing ethanol from municipal waste) and Mascoma, both of whom have deals with GM. The realm of cellulosic ethanol from trash is an exciting development to keep track of.
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