From Garbage to Ethanol: InEnTec’s Method At Heart of $120 Million Refinery

Who needs corn to make ethanol, when we already have plenty of garbage? InEnTec, a small company created by scientists from MIT and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA, has taken that idea of creating ethanol from garbage and pushed it for 13 years, to the point where it is now at the heart of a $120 million, commercial ethanol refinery being built in Reno, NV.

InEnTec, a private company with 27 employees, moved its headquarters to Bend, OR, in December, and still maintains engineering operations in Richland. The company’s technology, called Plasma Enhanced Melter, will be used to convert 90,000 tons of garbage into about 10.5 million gallons a year of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline for cars and trucks, according to a company statement yesterday. The plant is being built with private equity raised by Fulcrum BioEnergy of Pleasanton, CA, and InEnTec will retain a minority equity stake in the project.

The company’s melter works through what is known as a gasification process. It uses a high temperature plasma to vaporize waste, creating hydrogen-rich syngas—basically synthetic methane—which must then be converted into ethanol. It’s similar to a waste gasification plant Wade wrote about in Massachusetts, built by Ze-Gen, except that Ze-Gen isn’t converting the gas into ethanol.

The big question is how much it costs to convert garbage into ethanol, and whether it can possibly compete on price with corn as a raw material. Jeff Surma, InEnTec’s CEO, wouldn’t say precisely what it costs to make ethanol from garbage, but he did say it can be made more cheaply than corn-based ethanol, which now costs about $1.50 a gallon.

“A year or two ago, when corn was cheaper, this wouldn’t have been price-competitive,” says Surma, whom we reached on his cell phone in New York, where he was meeting with investors.

Surma’s process is unconventional, but his raw material is actually much cheaper than corn, because cities are willing to pay his company $25 to $75 a ton just to keep the garbage out of landfills, he says. Using garbage to make ethanol could also help ease corn scarcities, which some economists believe are driving up the price of food.

The Reno refinery is expected to start operating in early 2010, Surma says. So far, the project hasn’t signed contracts with any municipalities to become garbage suppliers. InEnTec currently operates a demonstration unit in Richland that is capable of processing one-fifth of that city’s solid waste.

There are always going to be questions about whether ethanol is a great alternative fuel, because it’s not as efficient at powering cars as gasoline, says Jesse Berst, managing director of the consulting firm Global Smart Energy (and an Xconomist). “It’s okay, not great,” he says. Still, putting garbage to this use is a tantalizing idea. “You don’t have any food versus fuel argument here, so if you’re going to make ethanol, this is the right way to do it,” he says.

Now Surma and the folks at InEnTec have to hope the price of corn stays high so that those New York investors will want to support their alternative to the alternative.

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