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Turning Garbage Into Jet Fuel: Sustainable Solution or Incineration in Disguise?

Alexis Petru
| Friday May 30th, 2014 | 7 Comments

British AirwaysCan garbage power your plane ride from New York to London? That’s the idea behind a new production plant that will transform waste from London’s homes and businesses into a jet fuel that costs about the same price as conventional petroleum-based fuel but burns cleaner and produces fewer carbon emissions.

Solena Fuels, a company that produces aviation and marine fuels made from solid waste, expects to break ground on its new GreenSky jet fuel facility next year on the site of a former oil refinery outside of London. British Airways has made a $550 million commitment to purchase all the fuel produced by the plant in the 11-year period after it opens in 2017–equating to about 50 tons of fuel per year.

The city of London generates approximately 18 million tons of trash per year, according to Fast Company, and once the jet fuel facility is open for business, will send about a half a million tons of garbage originally destined for the landfill to GreenSky. Solena will turn this trash into 120,000 tons of jet fuel, first using its patented high-temperature plasma gasification technology to convert the waste into a synthetic gas; then the company will utilize various third-party technologies to transform the gas into a liquid fuel. The resulting synthetic fuel works like those produced from coal and natural gas that airlines already use and, unlike biofuels such as ethanol, can be used thousands of feet up in the air, Fast Company reported. Solena’s product is considered a “drop-in” fuel, meaning airlines can use it without modifying their plane engines or fueling infrastructure.

Solena says its fuel produced from garbage burns cleaner than crude-based jet fuels, with virtually no sulfur emissions, a minimal amount of particulate matter and lower nitrogen oxide emissions during plane take-off. While British Airways is starting off small with this project (it will source only about 2 percent of its total fuel from GreenSky), the airline hopes to increase the amount of trash-based jet fuel it uses over time, Fast Company reported.

Too good to be true?

Clean-burning jet fuel from trash–it almost sounds too good to be true. And it might just be, according to anti-incineration activists who say that the kind of gasification technology Solena uses is just incineration in disguise. Wherever you sit on the debate about waste-to-energy or waste-to-product facilities, we can all agree that the GreenSky facility and Solena’s jet fuel will have environmental impacts, and it’s unclear, without further study, if this project is the most sustainable solution.

The jury is still out on which waste management method emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions: a landfill releasing the potent greenhouse gas methane as garbage decomposes or a gasification facility that produces carbon emissions as it converts waste to a product. Different studies come to various conclusions–usually in favor of the opinion of the report’s funders. Either way, we can’t be sure if GreenSky’s carbon footprint would be smaller than the amount of methane produced if the garbage was sent to the local landfill.

Like other incineration-like facilities, GreenSky will most likely produce a waste byproduct called fly ash that typically contains high concentrations of toxic metals from products like batteries and paints that end up in the waste stream. Solena Fuels’ CEO Robert Do told Fast Company that recyclables like bottles, glass and cans will be sorted out of the waste stream coming to GreenSky, but even with the best efforts of residents or waste management workers, it’s nearly impossible to extract every possible contaminant in the garbage that could result in toxic residue.

Anti-incineration advocates also point out that incinerators and gasification facilities undermine local recycling programs, essentially competing for the same feedstock.

“London has a very strong recycling program, so the waste all goes into a recycling center first,” Do said. “Everything that can be recycled–bottles, glass, cans–will be recycled. The material that’s left over, that would normally go to a landfill, that’s the stuff they take to our plant.”

Do and Solena seem supportive of London’s recycling efforts now, but what would happen if the city ramps up its waste reduction efforts or adopts a zero waste goal?

While it’s encouraging that British Airways is thinking outside the box to reach its sustainability goals, the airline might have missed the mark on the best ways to reduce waste and cut carbon emissions.

Image credit: British Airways

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru


▼▼▼      7 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Brian

    I can’t get the authors rejection of making fuel out of trash. The alternative would be to take oil out of the ground and burn it high in the sky! You have to take realistic steps before you reach your utopian, zero waste society.

  • Dave Shires

    “just incineration in disguise” … can you elaborate on why that’s bad?

  • jd_x

    The author neglected that, in order to understand the *net* GHG emissions from this process, you need to consider any *displaced* emissions. In this case, the fuel made from trash is displacing fossil fuels. So when you consider the net GHG emissions of this new potential fuel, you take the GHG emissions from creating the fuel-from-trash (as the author did) subtract the emissions not created by going to landfill (as the author also did) and also subtract the emissions avoided by not burning fossil fuels (as the author neglected). This latter factor is huge, and by including it, I can’t see how the process is not a huge net carbon sink.

    Now, as for the ultimate long-term viability of a process that encourages society to create waste, I agree that there are issues. But as another commentator said, we gotta start somewhere and can’t expect to get to utopia in one fell swoop.

  • Tim

    Actually, this article does present both sides. However, the “anti-incineration activists” of course would have a negetive view of this technology. As stated in the article, these derived fuels actually burn more purely (very small NOx emissions and nearly no SOx emissions) than crude-based fuels. The fly ash and toxic gasses produced in the gassification process are largely caputured via various filtration and chemical neutralization processes in order to make sure they are not released into the atomosphere. This is required by law in most countries and by international standards as well. Sure, there might be not a big difference in GHG between the natural Methane release from decomposition and the ultimate CO2 release from burning a waste-derived fuel. We aren’t given enough information to crunch the numbers and make that call. But it’s probably not a big difference and the benefit of power from utilization of the fuel adds a major benefit (think not just of travel but transport of food and other goods) that could very well outweigh the environmental toll.

    • janjandesailorman

      Another thing the author doesn’t discuss is what happens with the fly ash. If they’re smart, the operators will sell to concrete producers who can use it to displace up to 50% of the high-GHG Portland cement in concrete (and make the stuff stronger to boot). There’s a lot one can do to reduce impacts if you get creative – and Londoners aren’t going to get to zero waste much sooner than the Yanks, so may as well do something useful with their waste instead of burying it.

      BTW a similar project just got underway in Edmonton Canada (though producing first methane and then ethanol), these things may be getting into a sweet spot.

  • victorW

    Economics are one thing, but actually proving you can do it is another. These guys are claiming on their website that the technology has been proven – yes, FT is a known process, gasification is a known process, power co-gen is a known process…..but no one has successfully put all these together at the same time using waste as a feedstock at – commercial scale. They REALLY REALLY needed to have done this at a scalable demo size first, learned about the variations in feedstock constituents, learn how to have a closed loop system that adjusts for variances, and actually produce some FT liquids, oh and keep the demo running 24/7 for a few months to iron out any weaknesses in the system.

    Solena will try and do this on the fly with their first HUGE facility (if it gets built), spend years learning, failing to meet commitments, shutting down and starting up, burn loads of cash in the process and embarrass BA. Meanwhile, the Solena management will be well paid (via company operating expenses from all those loans) cite ‘challenging conditions’ as the reason for their failure then disappear.

  • Stephen Johnson

    Some gasifiers do not produce fly ash…