By Kathryn M. O’Neill, MIT Energy Initiative
January 7, 2021
Environment objectives broaden impact of MIT waste-processing spinoff that profits from a procedure called plasma gasification.
Anyone who has actually ever been reluctant in front of a trash bin knows the problem: It’s difficult to identify what can be recycled.
Garbage dumps take up space, naturally, but there is a lot more serious problem connected with them– one that was underscored for Daniel R. Cohn, currently an MIT Energy Effort (MITEI) research scientist, when he was the executive director of MITEI’s Future of Natural Gas research study. That issue is greenhouse gas emissions.
” About 130 million tons of waste each year enter into garbage dumps in the U.S., which produces a minimum of 130 million lots of CO 2– equivalent emissions,” Cohn says, noting that the majority of these emissions can be found in the form of methane, a naturally taking place gas that is much even worse for the climate than co2 (CO 2).
For Cohn, working on the MITEI research study made it clear that the time was ripe for InEnTec– a company he co-founded– to expand its organization.
The procedure is more expensive than throwing trash in a garbage dump, nevertheless, and environment change considerations weren’t a major chauffeur of financial investment 25 years earlier. “Back in the early ’90 s, international warming was more of a scholastic pursuit,” states InEnTec president, CEO, and co-founder Jeffrey E. Surma, adding that many individuals at the time didn’t even believe in the phenomenon.
As a result, for many years the company focused on supplying niche services to heavy industries and federal governments with severe poisonous waste problems. Now, nevertheless, Surma says the business is expanding with jobs that include plastics recycling and low-cost dispersed hydrogen fuel production– utilizing innovative versions of their core innovations to keep waste out of garbage dumps and greenhouse gases out of the air.
” Individuals today comprehend that decarbonization of our energy and industrial system has to occur,” says Surma.
Roots at MIT
“Combination is really long-term, so I questioned if we could find something that would be useful for societal advantage more near-term,” he says.
He coordinated with Surma, who was dealing with nuclear waste cleanup at the Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL), and they got U.S. Department of Energy funding to develop and run a speculative waste treatment heating system facility at MIT using plasma– a superheated, extremely ionized gas. Plasma is at the core of fusion research study, which aims to replicate the energy-producing powers of the sun, which is basically a ball of plasma. MIT supplied the critical large-scale space and facilities support for constructing the plasma heating system.
After the MIT job ended, Cohn and Surma coordinated with an engineer from General Electric, Charles H. Titus, to integrate the plasma technology with a joule-heating melter, a gadget Surma had been establishing to trap contaminateds materials in molten glass. They filed for patents, and with organization aid from a fourth co-founder, Larry Dinkin, InEnTec was born; a facility was developed in Richland, Washington, near PNNL.
InEnTec’s innovation, which the group developed and tested for several years prior to opening the company’s first commercial-scale production facility in 2008, “enables waste to come into a chamber and be exposed to extreme temperatures– a controlled bolt of lightning of over 10,000 degrees Celsius,” Surma explains. “When waste material enters that zone, it breaks down into its components.”
Depending on the size of the unit, InEnTec processors can handle from 25 to 150 tons of waste a day– waste that might otherwise be landfilled, or even incinerated, Cohn mentions. In a task now under way in California, the company will produce ethanol utilizing agricultural biomass waste that would typically have been burned and hence would have both created CO 2 and contributed to air contamination in the Central Valley, he states.
Supporting the hydrogen economy
Unlike incineration, which launches contaminants into the air, InEnTec’s procedure traps hazardous elements in molten glass while producing a helpful feedstock fuel called synthesis gas, or “syngas,” which can be transformed into such fuels as ethanol, methanol, and hydrogen. “It’s a very tidy process,” Surma says.
Hydrogen is a crucial product focus for InEnTec, which wishes to produce inexpensive, fuel cell– grade hydrogen at websites across the country– work that might support the broadened usage of electric automobiles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. “We see this as an enormous chance,” Surma says.
While 99 percent of hydrogen today is produced from nonrenewable fuel sources, InEnTec can produce hydrogen from any waste product. And its plants have a little footprint– usually one-half to 2 acres– permitting hydrogen to be produced almost anywhere. “You’re minimizing the distance waste has to take a trip and converting it into a virtually zero-carbon fuel,” Surma adds, describing that the InEnTec process itself produces no direct emissions.
Currently InEnTec has actually developed a plant in Oregon that will make fuel cell-grade hydrogen for the Northwest market from waste product and biomass. The plant has the potential to make 1,500 kilograms of hydrogen a day, roughly enough to fuel 2,500 vehicles for the typical daily commute.
” We can generate hydrogen at really low cost, which is what’s needed to take on fuel,” Surma states.
Another effort at InEnTec zeroes in on plastics recycling, which faces the type of complexity highlighted by the chip bag. Various grades of plastic have different chemical structures and can not simply be melted down together to make new plastic– which is why less than 10 percent of plastic waste in the United States today is recycled, Cohn says.
InEnTec fixes this issue with what it calls “molecular recycling.” “We have actually partnered with chemical companies pursuing plastic circularity [making new plastics from old plastics], because our technology enables us to get back to molecules, the virgin form of plastics,” Surma describes.
Recently, InEnTec teamed up with a significant car-shredding company to process its plastic waste. “We can recycle the products back into particles that can be feedstock for new control panels, seats, et cetera,” Surma states, keeping in mind that 40-45 percent of the product in the waste generated from recycling automobiles today is plastic. “We believe this will be a really substantial part of our service going forward.”
InEnTec’s innovation is likewise being used to recycle plastic for environmental cleanup.
” We at first put a lot of effort into medical and dangerous waste because we got more cash for disposing of those,” states Cohn, but he highlights that the group has actually always had wider aspirations.