Indiana Ethanol Power plans to turn trash into ethanol

By Kris Bevill
Web exclusive posted April 9, 2008 at 5:27 p.m. CST

Residents and businesses in Lake County, Ind., produce 4,000 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) daily. The second most populated county in Indiana is part of the greater Chicago metropolitan area and is home to universities, casinos, and many industrial facilities. In that county alone more than 480,000 people generate food waste, papers, plastics and junk which has caused removal costs to skyrocket in recent years due to increasingly limited landfill space.

Local authorities searching for a viable alternative have voted to begin negotiations with Indiana Ethanol Power LLC to build a facility that will turn trash into a commodity - ethanol. Once constructed, the 20 MMgy plant will process 1,500 tons of trash each day and will be the first of its kind in the United States, according to Indiana Ethanol Power.

Construction of the facility is expected to cost $100 million. Once completed, the plant will employ approximately 120 people. Indiana Ethanol Power has not selected a specific site in Lake County yet but has pledged to work with local communities and take environmental interests into consideration when choosing the location. Contract negotiations should be finalized in May and construction is tentatively set to being later this year.

The ground-breaking facility will include a patented type of weak acid hydrolysis. Invented by one of Indiana Ethanol Power's collaborators, GeneSyst International Inc., the process uses gravity pressure vessels (GPV) to turn waste products into simple sugars. GPVs are not new and acid hydrolysis has been around for over 100 years, according to Zig Resiak, program director for the Indiana Ethanol Power facility. GPVs were first used in Colorado in the 1980s for wet-air oxidation of sewage sludge. The technology was then moved to the Netherlands but was used only to destroy trash. It was then discovered that with slight modifications, GPVs could produce simple sugars. That patented version of GPV technology will be used in the Lake County, Ind., facility.

The process consists of dumping detritus into a large pool of water to separate trash into groups: metals and other solids on the bottom, cellulosic materials in the middle and plastics floating on top. Plastics can be pelletized and recycled into other products, while metals, sand and glass can be used for traditional recycling. All left-over materials have cellulosic properties and are fed into the GPV, which turns those items into a simple sugar solution. From there, the sugars go through a basic fermentation process and are distilled…and presto! Ethanol is the final product.

"We're really excited because this is an alternative to a resource that's been completely under-utilized," said Resiak. "We're not dependant on agricultural crops like sorghum or switchgrass or sugarcane or corn for conversion. We take the run of the mill trash that you send out of your kitchen." Resiak added, there is no need to separate or limit what gets thrown out so the general public won't have to do anything different with their garbage.

An added benefit to residents of Lake County, Ind., will be lowered trash removal costs. "The beauty of it is, the [landfill dumping] fee in that area is roughly $41 a ton and we're offering to take the MSW at $17.50 per ton," said Resiak. He estimates that the new facility could actually save Lake County residents and agencies $12 million in the first year.

There are many other benefits to using MSW as a feedstock for ethanol production, according to Resiak. Firstly, it's a year-round source of biomass that is not affected by climate, disease or costs. Secondly, it eliminates the need for landfills and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. The process also is carbon negative and qualifies for carbon credits. Thirdly, it's cheaper to finance than an incineration plant. According to Resiak, the capital cost of an MSW plant can be 40 percent less than a similarly sized incineration plant. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the process is water positive. "We're not a large consumer of any energy, including water resources," said Resiak. "Because we're using the GPV, we don't need to draw a lot of water or energy for the facility." During the wet process any moisture is drawn out of feedstock, cleaned and put back into the system. Using this method, a 20 MMgy plant can actually produce 7 million gallons of excess water every year, said Resiak.

Indiana Ethanol Power is a collaboration of consulting and engineering firms, including RW Armstrong, GeneSyst International Inc., River's Bend Engineering Inc., and Ghafari Associates LLC.