Startup up company has novel solution to garbage in overflowing landfills: Vaporize it

Around the world, landfills are stretched to overflowing, barely able to keep up with the garbage produced by society.

But the waste in landfills doesn’t just take up space. It also produces methane — a greenhouse gas — which is considered to be 82 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2),

What can be done to alleviate the problem? One company wants to vaporize the garbage in landfills and transform it into clean energy and fuel, which is also increasingly needed as the global climate crisis gets worse by the day.

Sierra Energy just raised a staggering $33 million in startup money from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which receives investments from business giants such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson.

Fast Company reports:

“[Sierra] isn’t aiming to replace recycling or composting, but to handle the millions of tons of waste that currently goes to landfills. ‘We take what’s leftover,’ says CEO Mike Hart. The technology can process nearly anything, including medical waste and hazardous waste. ‘It allows you to recycle the entire waste stream,’ he says. ‘The way we do that is by bringing the temperature of waste up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, twice the temperature at the core of a volcano. At that temperature, everything breaks down molecularly.'”

In essence, the process takes place in a blast furnace very similar to the ones used to make steel. Pure oxygen is then injected into the furnace. That leads to a chemical reaction with the carbon found in the waste, Hart explains:

“This doesn’t require external energy. It’s just a chemical reaction of carbon and oxygen.”

And as an added bonus, Sierra’s furnace also doesn’t produce any emissions; all of the gas produced is captured and then reused in the process. That gas has numerous uses, too:

“The gas can be used to create a variety of products, from jet fuel to plastic or fertilizer, instead of making those products from fossil fuels. If the gas is used to make fuel, that fuel will still produce emissions, but fewer than the fossil alternative. (The company’s diesel, Hart says, is 20 times cleaner than the California fuel standard.) The company’s hydrogen can also power vehicles without emissions. The gas can also be used to produce electricity through fuel cells, gas turbines, or other equipment.”

Sierra even has a new location for the plant where garbage is vaporized: An Army base in California where the garbage is taken, shredded, and then fed into the furnace.

The cost is also more affordable than dumping at a landfill:

“Since landfills charge ‘tipping fees’ to take trash, the new system could actually save money; a waste hauler that currently pays a landfill, for example, could decide to build its own system using the technology and then could both avoid paying fees and make money by selling electricity or products like fuel.”

In the end, Sierra’s model winds up helping to solve a major problem and also saves money in the process, Hart notes:

“What we found is that people can make a profit at less than the current tipping fees in most countries in the world.”

Featured Image Via Flickr

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Andrew Bradford

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