Turning Garbage Into Fuel, S4 Energy Joins Xconomy Lineup on May 19

Xconomy Seattle — 

Most people in the renewable fuel business will say that if you want to make ethanol, then corn is a lousy choice of raw material. The U.S. certainly has a lot of it, but corn is an inefficient source of energy, and it hogs up land that can be used to produce food.

But what if you could take municipal garbage—which our society produces plenty of—and transform it into ethanol?

That’s the idea Jeff Surma is pursuing at Bend, OR-based S4 Energy Solutions. I’m psyched to say that Surma, the company’s CEO, will be joining us for the next big Xconomy event “Separating Hype from Reality in Alternative Fuels” on May 19 at the Institute for Systems Biology’s new South Lake Union headquarters.

S4 is getting a lot of help from a big player in the trash business—Houston, TX-based Waste Management (NYSE: WM). S4 is a joint venture of Waste Management and Bend, OR-based InEnTec, which is developing a high-heat process that breaks down various kinds of waste (medical, commercial, someday the whole municipal smorgasbord of trash). The process creates a hydrogen-rich gas that can be converted into ethanol that powers motor vehicles.

This event is shaping up to be a diverse and provocative gathering of people pursuing different alternatives to fossil fuels. Here’s the lineup of confirmed speakers so far.

Kristina Burow, partner, Arch Venture Partners; co-founder, Sapphire Energy

Margaret McCormick, chief operating officer, Targeted Growth; CEO, Matrix Genetics

Ned David, founder and president, Kilimanjaro Energy; venture partner, Arch Venture Partners

John Gardner, incoming dean of academic affairs, Bainbridge Graduate Institute

Tom Ranken, president, Washington Clean Technology Alliance

Jan Allen, co-founder and VP of engineering, Harvest Power

Michael Ramage, CEO, Asemblon

Jeff Surma, CEO, S4 Energy Solutions

There should be plenty of room for debate in a gathering like there, where you have folks betting on algae-based biofuel (Sapphire, Matrix Genetics); natural gas from organic waste (Harvest Power); ethanol from industrial garbage (S4 Energy Solutions); and hydrogen fuel (Asemblon). We’ll also hear much more detail from Gardner about the new initiative that Boeing and Alaska Airlines have been pushing to create a cradle-to-grave system for producing and consuming aviation biofuels in the Northwest.

As always, this will be a first-rate opportunity to learn about the big challenges that remain in an important field of technology, and to network with some of the leading thinkers and doers in the business. I look forward to asking some hard questions on May 19, and inviting you to join in the conversation.