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.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - 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.

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