Rachel Nuwer is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.
PETTEN, Netherlands — Hidden behind undulating sand dunes and fog rolling off the North Sea, the sprawling, gated campus of the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands (ECN) sits on a spit of land about an hour north of Amsterdam. Crying gulls circled a building crammed with pipes, machinery and scaffolding, while in a nearby control room, engineers in yellow hardhats peered at a confounding series of digital flowcharts and graphs. They were working on one of clean energy’s intransigent problems: how to turn waste into electricity without producing more waste.
Decades ago, scientists discovered that when heated to extreme temperatures, wood and agricultural leftovers, as well as plastic and textile waste, turn into a gas composed of underlying chemical components. The resulting synthetic gas, or “syngas,” can be harnessed as a power source, generating heat or electricity. But gasified waste has serious shortcomings: it contains tars, which clog engines and disrupt catalysts, breaking machinery, and in turn, lowering efficiency and raising costs.
This is what the Dutch technology is designed to fix. The MILENA-OLGA system, as they call it, is a revolutionary carbon-neutral energy plant that turns waste into electricity with little or no harmful byproducts. In the mid-1990s, Mark Overwijk, the director of the ECN’s biomass and energy efficiency unit, and his colleagues set their sights on solving the tar problem. They were years ahead of their time. “Everyone was asking, ‘Why are these guys working on biomass?’” Overwijk recalled to The WorldPost, referring to organic material used as fuel. “We wanted to develop a technology to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy possible in a realistic way.”
The goal was to make gasification “the centerpiece of a new circular economy,” Overwijk said. “One based not on fossil fuels, but on biomass.”
Over the last 20 years, Overwijk and his colleagues have developed and perfected their technology, running the machinery for over 8,000 hours, working out the kinks and ensuring it is well-suited for processing everything from household rubbish and demolition debris to century-old railroad ties, paper industry leftovers and tulip bulb waste.
The MILENA-OLGA process, which heats garbage to over 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, is 11 percent more efficient than most existing energy-from-waste plants and over 50 percent more efficient than incinerators of a comparable scale. It’s also more environmentally friendly. While the conversion from solid to gas does generate carbon dioxide, because it offsets fossil fuel energy and does away with landfills that would eventually produce methane, it is ultimately carbon neutral or environmentally beneficial. The process also emits zero wastewater and produces no particulates or other pollutants. Just 4 percent of the original material is left over as inert white ash, which can be used to make cement.
For now, MILENA-OLGA syngas is used to power the same sort of turbines used for natural gas plants, but the ECN researchers have bigger plans. They recently teamed up with two of Europe’s largest gas utility companies to demonstrate how their syngas can be injected directly into the Dutch gas grid, and they are working on synthesizing liquid chemicals in the lab. As its name implies, syngas can be synthesized to make jet or diesel fuel or virtually any of the thousands of things traditionally made with fossil fuels, including plastics, clothing, cosmetics and computers. As Bram van der Drift, one of the researchers who developed the technology, put it: with a gaseous fuel now in hand, “the whole world is open to us.”
Others are equally enthusiastic. “The MILENA-OLGA technology produces a more energetic syngas than anybody else in the gasification sector,” said Paul Winstanley, a project manager in bioenergy at the Energy Technologies Institute in the United Kingdom who has studied the system in detail but has no financial stake in it. “The market for this is huge — people are crying out for it.”
With the system finally perfected, van der Drift and several other former government scientists who developed MILENA-OLGA teamed up with Synova, a company founded in 2012 to take the gasification system to market. As it turned out, it was the absolute worst time to launch a green power company. “Clean tech was out of fashion in the United States,” said Giffen Ott, co-founder and chief executive officer of Synova. “People didn’t know how to do it and had gone about it the wrong way, so everyone assumed it didn’t pay off well.”
That’s when a Palestinian refugee turned clean-tech investor named Ibrahim AlHusseini stepped in.
Growing up near the Red Sea, AlHusseini loved nothing more than to scuba dive, sharing his afternoons with whale sharks, octopuses, eels and the countless fish that gathered around his favorite brain coral — a massive growth the size of two cars.
When he returned to his favorite diving spot on the Red Sea as an adult, he was horrified to find that the biodiversity had been replaced by garbage. The brain coral had died, the fish were gone and the seafloor was covered in trash. “It was just this desolate, grey-brown spot where people had chosen to dump their stuff,” he said.
As our global culture of convenience, consumerism and disposability literally buries cities, landscapes and oceans in garbage, more and more places around the world are succumbing to the same fate as AlHusseini’s coral reef. The statistics are barely conceivable. We produce over 3.5 million tons of solid waste each day, 10 times more than a century ago.
Every year, garbage that winds up in landfills releases hundreds of millions of tons of methane — a greenhouse gas up to 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide that accounts for 9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the trash that doesn’t wind up in a landfill is burned in open fires, releasing toxic chemicals, or is dumped into the environment.
Realistically, our garbage output will not diminish anytime soon. By 2025, experts estimate that we’ll be generating 6.1 million tons per day — almost twice what we produce now. Nor will recycling — an industry that is currently in crisis and that even at best recovers only a tiny fraction of the world’s waste — be able to save us from rising tides of refuse.
Disposability is a notion all too familiar to AlHusseini. As a Palestinian refugee growing up in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t keenly aware of his family’s precarious status. In a way, he said, they themselves were disposable people. “A refugee can acutely live out the consequences of decisions made by others without thought or regard for the cascading effects of those decisions,” he said.
After launching a nutraceutical company from his dorm room at the University of Washington, by his mid-20s AlHusseini had made millions as an entrepreneur. He became a clean-tech investor, backing companies such as Tesla Motors, Zep Solar and Bloom Energy. But the garbage problem continued to nag at him. So in 2013, he founded the FullCycle Energy Fund, an investment firm dedicated to turning trash into clean energy. “Garbage has value, so why are we throwing it away?” he wondered.
After being introduced to Synova by a friend familiar with his quest, he realized MILENA-OLGA was just the answer he had been searching for. “Brahim was there as an investor during a time that Silicon Valley wasn’t,” said Ott.
“There’s a lot of despair about this garbage problem, but this is an issue we can solve in our lifetimes,” AlHusseini said. “The technology to do so is real. It’s economical. And it’s happening.”
Since then, Synova has built a 3.5-megawatt plant in Portugal and a 4.8-megawatt plant in India, where air pollution, largely from burning waste, kills more than 2.5 million people each year. “Waste management is causing an enormous ecological disaster, but this technology is able to convert it into the highest form of energy, so it becomes economically attractive,” said Ramakrishna Sonde, the executive vice president of technology and innovation at Thermax Global, the technology company responsible for bringing MILENA-OLGA to India as part of a clean-energy initiative. “From all points of view, it is superior.”
Plans are in the works for plants in Costa Rica and California, and a 30-megawatt project will open in 2019 outside Bangkok. Also in development are mini-units that will be ideal for creating on-site, locally generated energy for people on islands, off-grid locales or disaster sites. “The world could use 5,000 of these projects, just to meet garbage production now — and garbage is supposed to quadruple in our lifetime,” AlHusseini said. “It’s an infinite market.”
The Synova researchers calculate that, should we manage to transform 80 percent of the planet’s urban waste into power by using conversion technologies like Synova’s, we could generate a whopping 15 percent of our residential electricity needs. “That’s not even 100 percent of garbage — or 100 percent of urban waste,” AlHusseini pointed out.
Actually achieving anything close to that goal will require overcoming a number of challenges, however, including steep initial costs, especially for the first few plants. (Ott stressed that, once up and running, the technology is cost-competitive.) But the biggest obstacle according to AlHusseini is simply building up the momentum needed to get investors and contractors around the world onboard. “The joke in this industry is that everyone wants to be first in line to fund the third project,” he said. “The more plants we have at different scales, the easier it’s going to get.”
Geraint Evans, the bioenergy program manager at the Energy Technologies Institute, who has no stake in Synova, agreed. “We’re just on the cusp of commercializing these technologies,” he said. “We need to accelerate them, but because there is no operational history, people must be brave to be the first.”
Slowly, it’s starting to happen. In 2017, Caterpillar Ventures joined AlHusseini in investing in Synova. According to director Michael Young, both economics and the environment played a role in the decision. “When you look at the proposed ideas and opportunities to deal with our trash issue in the world today, this is absolutely one of the leading technologies,” he said. “We see this as truly a market opportunity to help push forward this technology.”
While syngas alone will not save the world, AlHusseini and others believe it has an important place in a suite of technologies that will help us tackle our most pressing environmental problems. “Synova is a part of the solution, but so is fusion, solar, wind, geothermal, wave technology, robotics and more,” AlHusseini said.
Given that, he encourages others in his position to consider not just how they can generate the highest returns but how they can do so while also making a difference. Impact investing is still a young movement, but it is beginning to blossom and grow as it gains traction among major firms and sparks conferences, TED talks and books. The paradigm shift has begun to catch on among wealthy individuals as well, among whom bragging rights no longer hinge on who has the biggest yacht or most spectacular jewelry but whether their latest investment led to genuine positive change.
“I tell my story in the hopes of inspiring others to join this way of solving problems at scale with investment capital rather than philanthropic dollars,” AlHusseini said. “We’ll find solutions much faster.”