Ze-gen Ramps Up its Waste Gasification Process: Lessons from a Clean-Energy Startup

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try the process on a slightly larger scale, in a plant where the syngas will be fed into a real boiler, for purposes of either heating or electrical generation. Doing that will require a larger partner to help with the financing, and Davis says Ze-gen hopes to announce a joint venture agreement with an as-yet-unnamed company this fall. Who the partner is, or where the plant will be, are secrets for now—but construction is expected to start in the second quarter of next year.

If you raise some money and show some early success, you can expect competitors to come after you—sometimes with lawsuits in hand.

Last September, a Fall River, MA-based company called Quantum Catalytics sued Ze-gen, saying the startup’s gasification technology infringed on patents it had acquired from a now-defunct 1989 MIT spinoff called Molten Metal Technologies. I wrote two extensive stories about the patent dispute, which centered around allegations that Ze-gen acquired confidential information about the patented process by hiring engineers, consultants, and attorneys who formerly worked for Molten Metal.

In the Ze-gen control room, an engineer monitors temperatures at various locations in the system and measures syngas output.

In the Ze-gen control room, an engineer monitors temperatures at various locations in the system and measures syngas output.

Ze-gen denied the allegations. If the startup had licensed the Molten Metal technologies from Quantum Catalytics in 2005, when Quantum’s CEO first approached Davis, it might have avoided the suit. But Davis declined to cut a deal then, and Ze-gen said later in legal documents that not only were the two companies’ technologies non-overlapping, but many of the patents Quantum claimed it controlled were expired. (In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Ze-gen’s attorney went even farther, describing Quantum’s approach to Ze-gen as a “shakedown operation.”)

The fact that some of the disputed patents were inactive may have decreased Quantum’s leverage; in any case, after months of legal maneuvering and negotiation, the suit has now been settled. In an agreement finalized on September 18, Quantum Catalytics and Ze-gen dropped all claims and counterclaims. Davis says Ze-gen’s settlement payment was so small that it won’t materially affect the company. “I’m not free to disclose what it was settled for, but I’d say we were very pleased with the outcome,” he says.

This interactive diagram on one of the control-room displays gives a simplified overview of the Ze-gen waste gasification system.

This interactive diagram on one of the control-room displays gives a simplified overview of the Ze-gen waste gasification system.

If your business plan depends on regulatory changes, tread carefully—and try to line up political support.

Unlike some other energy companies we’ve covered—IST Energy, which has developed a cargo-container-sized waste gasification machine, comes to mind—Ze-gen hasn’t had trouble getting the permits it needs to run its demonstration plant. But there is a major regulatory snafu that could prevent the company from growing in Massachusetts. That’s the fact that the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources has not yet decided whether to classify waste gasification as a form of renewable energy. Unless it does, Ze-gen won’t be eligible to sell renewable energy credits (RECs), which have become an important financing vehicle for most cleantech companies. (An REC is essentially a promise by one entity that its activities will decrease carbon dioxide emissions by a certain amount, offsetting the CO2 emissions of the REC buyer. There’s a growing trade in RECs, with companies like Worcester, MA-based World Energy acting as marketplaces.)

“In my view, it is beyond perverse that an advanced technology like ours, which not only prevents landfilling but prevents all of the uncaptured methane that landfills produce from entering the atmosphere, would not qualify” for RECs, Davis says. The opposition to classifying waste gasification as a form of renewable energy apparently centers around fears that it might … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Wade,

    Great article — leads to a question:
    Does the energy expended to keep the copper at 2,400-2,700 F, plus the energy required to feed and operate the gassifier, end up being larger than the synfuel energy produced?

  • Wade Roush

    Good question, Bill. The short answer is no — the synfuel contains much more energy than is required to keep the gasifier up to temperature. In a commercial plant (the way Bill Davis explained it to me) part of the synfuel generated, about 30 percent, would be cycled back into running the furnace. But the way I understand it, once the furnace is hot, a large part of the energy that keeps the metal in its molten state is actually generated by the gasification process itself, which is exothermic.

  • Hi Bill,

    That is a great question! Ze-gen’s liquid metal gasification system processes carbon-rich waste material, like wood waste, and converts those materials to usable renewable fuel in the form of synags. When applied at commercial scale, the process is exothermic, meaning that the chemical conversion process will produce more total energy than is required to operate the facility, enough to keep the bath at optimal operating temperature as well as to produce syngas to make steam and/or electricity. Currently, Ze-gen is operating its pilot-scale test facility that is designed to test efficiency and operability. At this sub-optimal scale, the pilot plant does require incremental natural gas to keep the gasifier’s liquid metal bath at optimal temperature, using more input energy than the plant outputs, however at full scale, this will not be the case.

  • Tom

    Clearly this is the same technology that MMT worked on for many person-years in Fall River. That is a matter of record that cannot be disputed (c.f. USDOE technical reports – and others). The issue there, as noted, is expiration of patents – some have expired, some have not.

    I don’t think MMT/QC would go away quickly – so it is reasonable to surmise that the Sept. 18th settlement and the pending “new partner” announcement are closely related.

  • ghali hasan

    good job/ would like more info on cost a for new a unit thank’s

  • John

    What about a toxic release that injured several NB workers at the landfill. Was this related? Is the state investigating, or are they killing it because of Ian Bowles past ties to Zegen?

  • Hi John,
    The toxic release was not related to Ze-gen’s pilot facility. It occurred at the facility next door.

  • rob

    Hi, would this the process and the plant support the burning of tyres and copper,chrome,arsenic coated organic material ,if so what additional emmissions and impact do you foresee this employing on the environment?

  • Hi Rob,

    We are currently testing materials now in New Bedford. The emissions will vary by material, but we expect to put in full-scale emissions control on the commercial facility. The commercial facility will comply with any and all federal, state and local regulations regarding air emissions. You can check out more information about our plant by watching our video: http://ze-gen.com/rethink/transforming-the-way-we-view-waste

  • Ani

    would this work in municipal waste with high moisture content and low calorific value,where things like paper plastic etc have already been picked buy rag pickers ,what is the minimum BTU required ?

  • Hi Ani,

    An ideal feedstock for Ze-gen’s technology contains a relatively low moisture content and high caloric value, which is generally higher than municipal solid waste. However, we expect to blend feedstock materials that range in moisture content and BTU value, in order balance these materials with feedstocks that have more ideal moisture and energy contents.

  • Roy

    What happens to the small amounts of toxic chemicals extracted, such as arsenic? Is it captured and disposed of separately, or diluted in the syngas?

  • Tom

    The issues and questions raised by Ani and now Roy are not new, they have been addressed in the earlier MMT work, including patents and government research reports (public stuff). Maybe Cara(?) can provide these for reference, now with the settlement final as reported.

  • Hi Roy,

    Thanks for your question. The toxic chemicals are captured in the plant’s emissions control system (including a baghouse). The contents of the baghouse are periodically hauled off site by a licensed contractor.

  • rob

    hi Cara

    thank you fror your reply,could you please forward your contact details as i would like to discuss ze-gens plant and application capabilities.

  • Roy

    Thanks for your replies, Tom and Cara. I would be interested in reading some of the MMT research reports and public documents. If either of you could point me to the references, I’d appreciate it. Cara, I’d like your contact info as well. Thanks, Roy.

  • Hi Rob and Roy,
    Please feel free to contact me at cgiudice(at) ze-gen(dot)com

  • shaik

    hai Cara.. can u give me more info ….i like to develop your technology in my country,can we use wood waste only? also the cost ?

  • Cara

    Hi Shaik,

    Please visit our website: http://www.ze-gen.com for more information. Also, feel free to email me at cgiudice (at) ze-gen (dot) com.