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

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reduce recycling. But that’s an “illogical” fear, Davis says, since C&D waste like that used in Ze-gen’s demonstration plant has already been recycled—the company gasifies what’s left after everything recyclable has already been recovered.

Fortunately for Ze-gen, the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this summer includes a provision ensuring that C&D waste gasification would count as a form of renewable energy. Davis says two large non-governmental organizations lobbied specifically on Ze-gen’s behalf for the inclusion of that language. “I’m not allowed to mention the name of the groups that lobbied for us, but they recognize the perversion of disincentivizing advanced technology while awarding incineration and landfilling,” Davis says.

The Senate, however, has yet to come up with its own version of climate and energy legislation—so Ze-gen could still use some friends in high places.

An exterior view of Ze-gen's demonstration plant, taken in 2007.

An exterior view of Ze-gen's demonstration plant, taken in 2007.

Be open to redefining your market as the economy dictates.

The main problem for U.S.-based energy entrepreneurs has always been that fossil fuels are so cheap here, meaning there’s little incentive to invest in alternatives. In 2008, when petroleum and natural gas prices shot up, it looked like the economics of cleantech might finally be changing, but the spike was short-lived. That could force Ze-gen to look outside the U.S. for its eventual commercialization partners, not to mention its customers.

“A year ago, natural gas cost around $12 per mmBTUs [million British thermal units], and today it’s $3 per mmBTU,” Davis observes. “It’s very difficult to imagine going ahead and building a plant with coventional financing, unless there are either [regulatory] incentives or higher fuel prices. That’s not an argument for giving up, but rather for looking to places that have different economics than in the U.S. We have very cheap natural gas relative to the rest of the world, other than the Middle East. It’s going to stay cheap for a while. But if you go to the U.K. or other countries dependent on natural gas, things are very different.”

So, look for Ze-gen to start exploring foreign markets soon after building its next plant. And watch this space for further developments—Davis says news about the company’s joint venture agreement is coming soon.

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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.