Don’t Truck Your Waste to a Landfill: Truck A Gasification Plant To Your Waste

For most of the “clean energy” startups Xconomy covers, the big question is whether the company’s prototype—be it a wind turbine, a wood-chips-to-ethanol reactor, or an anaerobic cow-manure digester—will still work efficiently when scaled up to industrial proportions. But for IST Energy in Waltham, MA, the question was how to scale down a waste gasification plant until it fit inside a standard cargo container, a space roughly 30 feet by 8 feet by 8.5 feet.

That’s exactly what the startup, a new subsidiary of engineering and defense contractor InfoSciTex, has now accomplished. Tomorrow the company is expected to launch its “Green Energy Machine” or GEM waste-to-energy conversion system, a unit that fits on the back of a truck and can shred three tons of trash per day—including paper, plastic, wood, food, and agricultural waste—and turn it into a synthetic gas mixture which can then be used to fuel electric generators or building heating systems.

In essence, it’s a mobile version of the factory-sized gasification pilot plant that Boston cleantech startup Ze-gen has built in New Bedford, MA (see my August 2007 story)—except that IST Energy uses a different kind of vessel to gasify waste, a “stratified downdraft gasifier,” in place of Ze-gen’s giant vat of molten iron. The unit takes up as much space as about three cars, and can be backed up to a building’s loading dock, or wherever its dumpsters are stowed.

The company built the Green Energy Machine in response to a request from the U.S. Army, which wants to cut down on the volume of trash, mostly from field kitchens, that it has to convoy across Iraq and Afghanistan. And IST Energy CEO and president Stu Haber says he expects the military to become one the prime customers for the machines, which will be ready for delivery this summer. But he says the GEM is also ideal for commercial and municipal facilities such as industrial plants, hospitals, universities, prisons, sports stadiums, and city waste transfer stations—“really, anybody who generates at least two tons of waste a day, which covers a huge market.” (For comparison, the town of Lincoln, MA, generates 6 tons of solid waste per day, and the Prudential Center development in downtown Boston generates 11 tons, according to Haber.)

Stu Haber, president and CEO of IST Energy, with the GEMWhile the machine isn’t cheap—IST will charge $850,000 per unit—its major selling point is that it can greatly reduce customers’ waste disposal and energy costs. About 95 percent of the material fed into the GEM is converted into gas, leaving an ash residue that is much cheaper to transport and takes up much less landfill space. (It also won’t emit methane and other greenhouse gases, as most landfilled materials do.) And not only does the machine power itself, but the extra gas produced can run a 120-kilowatt electrical generator or a 240-kilowatt-equivalent gas furnace. (For comparison, a typical standby home generator produces 12 kilowatts, while commercial emergency generators have outputs of 20 to 150 kilowatts.)

InfoSciTex didn’t start out in the clean energy or waste-disposal business. The company is working on an eclectic range of engineering and R&D projects in health, aerospace, software, energy, and defense, including an advanced insect repellent, a feeding bottle for pre-term infants, and an air-activated blanket for hypothermia victims. Many of its projects are a legacy of its 2005 acquisition of engineering staff and federally funded Small Business Innovation Research programs from Waltham’s Foster-Miller (which retained its robotics, advanced materials, and some other divisions and became a subsidiary of defense contractor QinetiQ).

Foster-Miller had been working on a small-scale gasification scheme, and in early 2005 it responded to an Army request for proposals for waste-management solutions for its overseas operations. “We not only outlined a solution but told them we could also provide electricity and gas heat,” says Haber. The Army accepted that proposal and several others, and the project—which became the core of IST Energy—won DoD funding to the tune of $2.5 million.

The company used the money to develop a lab prototype, then raised another $2 million in angel funding to build the first production unit, which is now parked outside the InfoSciTex building on Waltham’s Bear Hill Road (see photo).

I got a look at the unit last week. From watching a technician wriggle around the equipment inside the container, it seemed clear that one the biggest challenges for the company was … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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9 responses to “Don’t Truck Your Waste to a Landfill: Truck A Gasification Plant To Your Waste”

  1. Michael Pope says:

    Unfortunately, the Z-Gen (IST) approach here is neither new, innovative, nor the latest in cargo container gasification systems.

    I have participated in the development of this same gasification processor format since 1988 under the companies – Entech Inc., Entech Corp., IET, Inc and SENREQ LLC. These corporations have produced 15 different commercial systems with cargo containers as the basic package, both fixed and mobile. And, these organizations have pitched this program to the US military on no less than three occasions.

    Three obstacles prohibit the real transition of legitimate new, effective and economical technologies from R&D to industrial/commercial use:

    (1) Grossly inadequate funding to support the post-R&D to market phase.
    (2) Environmental regulatory bureaucracy delays and lack of cooperation of state and local agencies.
    (3) Tangible political support and real assistance in endorsing and assisting new, green technologies.

    For want of those three factors many really good technologies over the years could have had all of us enjoying cheaper transportation, massive reduction (if not elimination) of landfills, and cheaper energy through better non-incineration waste-to-power.

    Tough sledding.

    Good luck to Z-Gen/IST

  2. Mathew says:

    Truly green technologies keep resources in closed cycles of use. Gasification is a wonderful technology, but burning and landfilling still interrupts a resource cycle.

    Real innovation? how about a truck-sized hot composter with methane capture. Stick the organic matter back in the ground!

  3. Chase Ingersoll says:

    I thought this would be worthy of contributing to the gasifier discussion.

  4. Alice Allen says:

    Sounds good: particularly that part about shredding trash. I have a ton or so just waiting for a shredder. How long do I have to wait?

  5. jim mason says:

    $800,000 for a small gasification unit is an undeployable price point. and the solving of the chunk fuel requirements of typical gasifiers by a brute force combination of shredding, drying and pelleting machines, is not a terribly creative engineering solution.

    many of us believe the gasification problem can be solved from the bottom up, using cheap digitally based manufacturing techniques, open source engineering, and online information sharing.

    a gasifier is ultimately a very low tech machine. it is basically some well configured steel tanks, and some electric smarts. it does not need to be an exotic endeavor requiring DOE support or other forms of govt dole. suggesting that we need such before we can deploy only reveals a lack of creativity.

    we’ve shipped 45 gasifier units in the last 8 months, without one penny of govt help or tolerance. see here:

    no, they are not turnkey industrial systems, but i’ll bet the house that we will get to such, and with price points that are actually tolerable to the market, without precarious govt subsidies, far faster than the above referenced strategies.

    and yes, of course in the end it makes sense to put the whole rig in a shipping container. this is a very old idea. lots of things make sense in shipping containers. see

    jim mason

  6. Great technology! It’s about time that these machines have become small enough and affordable enough to become common place.
    Good luck and best wishes.

    Glenn P DeRosa

  7. Anonymous says:

    Garbage-to-Gas Tech is imperative for old dumps. But we must be careful when subsidizing this to not encourage dumping rather than waste reduction & recycling. The gas syphoned from a garbage will never offset the materials loss. There is no excuse for why we haven’t achieved 80% recycling rates as has easily been achieved in Germany. Reduce & recycle if not for saving energy, do it just for the material savings.