D.C. Start-Up Envion Aims to Turn Trash to Fuel

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Plastic soda bottles, Big Gulp cups and empty sour cream containers get fed into the top of the three-story machine. About 10 minutes later, out the other side comes a light-brown synthetic oil that can be converted into fuel for a truck or a jet airplane.

The Envion Oil Generator, scheduled for an official unveiling at Montgomery County's Solid Waste Transfer Station on Wednesday, represents a local company's decade-long effort to fight rising fuel costs and help protect the environment. As part of a pilot program, the company recently assembled the first of its fuel-producing generators at the Derwood waste facility.

"We're creating immediate answers to today's environmental concerns," said Michael Han, the firm's chairman and chief executive, as he showed off the generator on Tuesday. "This is an answer to environmentalists who don't want a landfill in their back yard."

The District company's technology works by melting plastic in an oxygen-free environment to separate the hydrocarbons destined for the oil barrel from the additives used to make that Big Gulp cup. The additives are rendered into a nonhazardous ash byproduct, the company says. While other firms have developed ways to convert waste plastic into oil, Han said, Envion uses a "far-infrared ray" technology that yields more fuel than competitors' processes.

Environmental experts didn't immediately know what to make of the company's claims. A research director with the environmental organization Greenpeace said that he hadn't heard of this particular technology but that his instinct was to remain skeptical.

"There are so many schemes like this," said Kert Davies, citing plans he's heard that would make sustainable fuel out of everything ranging from turkey carcasses to carbon dioxide. "I get calls every other day from someone who has some invention that magically makes the world whole."

Envion said its new generator can consume any type of plastic and convert it into synthetic oil; depending on the type of plastic, one ton can be converted into three to six barrels of fuel. Envion said it costs about $10 to convert the plastic waste into a barrel's worth of synthetic oil; currently, crude oil sells for close to $70 a barrel.

The generator, with a capacity for handling more than 6,000 tons of plastic per year, is a slightly smaller version of what Envion will soon be pitching as its flagship product. The 10,000-ton version, which could produce up to 60,000 barrels, costs $6 million to $7 million to build. A prototype unit using earlier versions of the company's technology was assembled in Korea but has since been dismantled

While Envion pitches its technology as one that should receive the approval of environmentalists, Davies at Greenpeace was dubious. "To make it big, this company needs people to waste plastic," he said. "We need to question whether we should be using plastic at all to begin with."

Han, a former investment banker who worked for Lehman Brothers more than a decade ago, said the privately held company is mostly funded out of his own pocket, but it has also received money from "angel" investors. Envion currently employs 46 people.

Han's family consists largely of engineers. Envion's technology was initially designed by his uncle, who lives in Korea and China. Han brought the company back to the United States, specifically Washington, because he grew up in the region and wanted to "get closer to Mom and Dad."

Envion hopes to license the technology to municipalities across the country and eventually take it global. The company installed the new generator at its own expense at the Montgomery County facility as a way to woo potential customers with a demonstration.

At the end of October, the company will remove the generator; Envion said it doesn't yet know where the device will go next.

"We're happy to host them," said Peter Karasik, who manages the waste facility. Montgomery County's Solid Waste Transfer Station handles about 100 tons of recyclable material a day, he said, and sells hundreds of tons of recycled plastic to bidders every month. But the spot on which Envion's generator is parked will soon be needed again because that's where the facility stashes leaves collected from county streets each fall.

"We need every bit of space we can get," Karasik said.

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