Los Angeles Times

Lancaster, energy firm pursue a hot idea

Solena Group plans a first-of-its-kind plant to disintegra­te the city’s paper waste to produce a clean fuel.

- By Sammy Roth

An energy company with big ambitions to produce the clean fuel of the future announced a deal Tuesday with Lancaster officials to convert some of the city’s recyclable­s to hydrogen through a process that uses plasma heating technology — originally developed for NASA — to disintegra­te paper products at temperatur­es as high as 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Solena Group’s technology has no commercial track record, and the company has not yet secured financing to build its $55-million facility in Lancaster. Solena is one of many firms looking for ways to cheaply produce hydrogen without generating planet-warming gases in hopes that the clean-burning fuel will one day replace oil and gas for transporta­tion or heating.

But the company’s process, which uses so-called plasma torches, caught the attention of Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris.

The city will expedite Solena’s permitting process and send the company its paper recyclable­s, rather than paying to dump them in a landfill. Some U.S. cities have been sending recyclable­s to landfills since China stopped accepting exported waste in 2018.

If the hydrogen plant doesn’t materializ­e or otherwise fails, Parris said in an interview, there’s little downside for the city.

The upside would be pioneering a technology that could dramatical­ly cut emissions. Lancaster will own a small stake in the plant.

“If we continue producing energy as we have been, we’re not going to be here in 50 years,” Parris said, referring to the impacts of climate change. “I’m excited to see how well it works, and how quickly we can expand this through the nation.”

A maverick Republican, Parris has made climate change his signature issue. He helped make Lancaster the first city in Southern California to ditch its privately owned electric utility and buy cleaner power for residents. He also convinced the Chinese automaker BYD to build an electric bus factory in Lancaster.

As a trial lawyer, he is representi­ng thousands of people suing Southern California Gas Co. over the alleged health impacts of the 2015 methane blowout at the company’s Aliso Canyon storage facility.

“Most of what we do is the first time it’s ever been done,” Parris said.

Solena Group’s chief executive, Robert Do, has been honing his waste-to-fuel technology for decades.

Do co-founded the company in the 1980s with Salvador

Camacho, a former NASA engineer who helped the space agency develop a plasma heating technique that could generate temperatur­es high enough to simulate reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. The technology was crucial to testing the heat shields that would protect the first Americans in space as they returned to Earth.

A 1994 NASA publicatio­n described plasma heating as “passing a strong electric current through a rarefied gas to create a plasma — ionized gas — that produces an intensely hot flame.” Camacho started a spinoff company utilizing the technology in 1971.

“It’s a pretty well-demonstrat­ed industrial equipment,” Do said in an interview.

Solena Group would use some of the gas it produces — mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide — to power its plasma torches.

The company has tried and failed to build a commercial facility before. In 2015, for instance, a joint venture between Solena and British Airways to produce jet fuel at a facility in London fell apart after oil prices crashed, undercutti­ng the project’s economics.

Do is hopeful that California policies requiring cleaner energy will create an atmosphere in which his technology can thrive.

“Our technology can only follow what the market demands are,” he said.

There’s huge demand for hydrogen in industrial processes such as petroleum refining and fertilizer production.

The fuel burns cleanly, but it’s typically produced from coal or natural gas, in processes that emit planetwarm­ing carbon dioxide. A tiny portion of global supply is produced through electrolys­is, which involves splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

As solar and wind power have gotten cheaper, experts have grown more optimistic about the potential to produce hydrogen through electrolys­is powered by renewable energy. In theory, that could make hydrogen an abundant, climate-friendly fuel.

In addition to cleaning up industry and transporta­tion, “green hydrogen” could replace some of the fossil natural gas that homes and businesses use for heating and cooking, a possibilit­y touted by Southern California

Gas Co. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, meanwhile, said last year that it would attempt to build the world’s first power plant fueled by hydrogen.

Green hydrogen is still too expensive to make much of a dent in global demand. But costs are moving in the right direction.

The consulting firm BloombergN­EF released a report in March finding that with supportive public policies, renewable hydrogen could meet 24% of the world’s energy demands by 2050, and reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels and industry by one-third.

The analysis didn’t consider the type of process that Solena Group is proposing, known as “plasma gasificati­on.”

While the concept isn’t totally unheard of, it has yet to be proved commercial­ly, several hydrogen experts told The Times.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal research institute, studied gasificati­on as part of a recent report. They found that producing hydrogen through gasificati­on of organic waste — basically applying heat and pressure until the waste becomes a gas — could be one of the cheaper strategies for bringing down carbon dioxide concentrat­ions in the atmosphere.

How would that work? The trick is to understand that organic waste — such as paper goods — might otherwise decompose in landfills, where it would ooze methane, a heat-trapping gas. Diverting that waste from the landfill, and converting it to hydrogen, would avoid some of those emissions. And the hydrogen would also displace a dirtier fuel, such as diesel in a heavyduty truck.

“There’s a price of hydrogen at which it starts to become economical,” said Sarah Baker, a chemist at Lawrence Livermore and the report’s lead author.

Baker and her colleagues considered only convention­al heating methods, not higher temperatur­e plasma torches.

But Solena Group is targeting the same goal: cheap hydrogen with minimal carbon emissions and an overall planetary benefit.

The company hopes to sell hydrogen to operators of fueling stations for hydrogen-powered vehicles, a small but growing market.

“For something like passenger vehicles, we already have an increasing­ly lowcost, low-carbon alternativ­e in electric vehicles,” said Ben Gallagher, an expert in emerging technology at the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. “For heavy-duty vehicles like trucking or street sweepers or garbage trucks or buses, this is a potential avenue for hydrogen, because a battery would be so heavy.”

Solena Group has a lot still to prove. The company has partnered with Fluor Corp., a multinatio­nal engineerin­g and constructi­on firm, to build its plant in Lancaster, which it hopes will be permitted by early next year and producing hydrogen by late 2022.

If the firm can produce hydrogen at the low price point it’s claiming — reliably enough to attract investors, and without generating noxious byproducts — it would be a big deal, said Jeffrey Reed, a renewable fuels expert at UC Irvine.

“Gasificati­on is potentiall­y quite cost-effective for producing hydrogen,” he said.

 ?? Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times ?? LANCASTER WILL expedite Solena Group’s permitting process and send the company its paper recyclable­s, rather than paying to dump them in a landfill. Above, a recycling center in Burbank last year.
Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times LANCASTER WILL expedite Solena Group’s permitting process and send the company its paper recyclable­s, rather than paying to dump them in a landfill. Above, a recycling center in Burbank last year.

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