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Turning garbage into sugar for fuel

Waste Management signs a deal with Renmatix to explore making fuel and high-value chemicals from urban waste.
August 24, 2012
A Renmatix employee pumps sugar made from wood chips at its demonstration plant. It will now explore using its supercritical water-based process with garbage. Credit: Renmatix

For advanced biofuel companies, there are often questions over how much biomass is available to make biofuels and chemicals. But garbage is often in plentiful supply.

Municipal waste hauler Waste Management yesterday announced a deal to explore making chemicals and fuels from trash with Renmatix, a startup which has a low-cost process for converting biomass into sugars. 

The company’s technology uses supercritical water, or water at very high temperature and pressure, to dissolve the cellulose and hemicellulose in organic materials, such as wood chips, into sugar. Once the sugars are produced, the company can use standard fermentation equipment to make ethanol or other chemicals. (See, Use of Supercritical Water Could Cost of Ethanol)

Renmatix is operating a demonstration plant in Georgia using wood chips as a feedstock but says its process works with a range of inputs. In its deal with Waste Management, Renmatix will explore using “urban waste streams” to make sugar, including recyclables, food straps, construction and demolition debris, and pulp and paper waste. Renmatix received a vote of confidence earlier this year when chemical giant BASF invested $30 million in the company to build a large-scale facility (See, BASF Funds Sugar from Wood Startup).

Although it’s a garbage-collection company, Waste Management has many activities in energy. It take the methane gas which comes from landfills and burns it to make electricity or sells it into the natural gas grid. The deals with Renmatix and a handful of other startups, though, are focused on making higher-value fuel and chemicals with waste.

Waste Management took a stake in a company called InEnTec which has built a facility to convert industrial waste into synthesis gas through gasification at a Waste Management landfill in Oregon. The synthesis gas is then converted into chemicals and other materials are recycled. It’s also invested in Enerkem, which is building a municipal waste-to-fuel facility in Canada, and in Agilyx, which has a process for turning plastics into oil.

Most of the companies Waste Management has invested in are operating at a small scale or are still developing their technology. As is the case with Renmatix, the key question for all of them is the cost of making a fuel or chemical. Getting access to inexpensive wood chips or energy crops remains one of the challenges of advanced biofuels. Working with garbage, where people often pay you to take the stuff, addresses that cost question head on. 

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