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Developer Says Time Is Right for California Syngas Project

May 18, 2009
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Los Angeles-based Rentech Inc., a research and development (R&D) firm, is ready to commercialize a waste-to-clean energy process. The planned Rialto (CA) Renewable Energy Center is promising unprecedented environmental and energy benefits in both the power and transportation sectors.

Energy and air quality officials in California are interested in the project at Rialto, according to Rentech CEO Hunt Ramsbottom, a 25-year entrepreneur who assumed leadership at the company three years ago. "It's exactly what the state needs: green jobs, renewable energy and a cleaner environment. If you can't get excited about this, then there is nothing to get excited about," he said. "This is really in the sweet spot of what the state wants to do."

Ramsbottom told NGI in an interview that Rentech is ready to deliver. What the Rialto plant offers is relief to area landfills because the plant will use green waste yard clippings as its primary fuel source. The clean gas created from the biomass stew will be used to created steam to power a 35 MW electric generation turbine, and through the patented process the synthetic gas (syngas) created will be turned into ultra-clean jet fuel and diesel for airlines and other segments of transportation sector.

The process, or "train," is enclosed, so the carbon is essentially captured, Ramsbottom said. The only "real" residue is ash, which will be sent to the landfill, he said.

"The beauty of the gasification is that it is all enclosed and it is actually not a complicated process at all," said Ramsbottom, contending that the electricity generated and the ultra-clean jet fuels will be priced competitively with other alternative fuels. "The gasification is really the part we had to work on the last couple of years because it is not commercially available."

Any waste product can be used in the beginning. Some feedstock will come from treated sludge from the city's adjacent wastewater treatment plant. The sludge is "roasted," or cooked in an enclosed vessel, and the steam coming off the tail gas out of the cooking process will turn the turbines, which make the power. Liquid fuels are then produced from further refinement of the syngas. Partner firms help Rentech at the beginning and end phases, but the company has patented technology in between that is crucial, Ramsbottom said.

Rentech takes it all the way through the hydrocarbon chain and then it gets upgraded at the site through a technology applied by partner UPO, a unit of Honeywell, which works with refineries around the world, Ramsbottom said. "They hydro-crack it into a clean wax that is upgraded into a clean fuel." Rentech's technology kicks in after the gasification and before the upgrading into a transportation fuel.

Rentech has been working on its patents in the process for more than 20 years. "Depending on a country's [or region, state] resources, we can convert any of it into jet fuel, diesel or power," Ramsbottom said.

Ramsbottom said the company cannot disclose estimated costs at this point, but he said he convinced that the Rialto plant should produce "very commercial returns. We're still going through the feasibility right now so we're reluctant to put out any numbers."

One of the differences now as opposed to only a few years ago is the availability of tax benefits, carbon and methane credits, etc. To Ramsbottom, the Rialto project, scheduled to start in 2012, is "definitely a commercial project." Rentech is now in discussions with various entities for long-term contracts.

At present, Rentech is applying for federal loan guarantees for the bulk (80%) of the plant's capital costs, and it will also seek investment tax credits for up 30% of the plant's costs when ground is broken for the project, which will be located in an industrial park about 70 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Ramsbottom emphasized the commercial scale of the project, which will use 1,000 tons of landfill waste daily. Municipalities want projects in the 1,000-2,000-ton range for similar projects tied to wastewater treatment, he said.

Rentech's prototype project is already running in Commerce City, CO, making jet fuel from natural gas, Ramsbottom said. The $100 million Product Demonstration Unit facility is designed to produce more than 400 gallons per day of ultra-clean synthetic jet fuel, aviation fuel, ultra-low sulfur diesel, and specialty waxes and chemicals and is scalable for greater output.

In establishing a network of the power plant and fuel facilities, Rentech will look for waste transfer locations where much of the nation's waste is hauled to, stored and eventually taken to the landfills. If located nearby, the project could take all of the green waste and save the local economy the cost of transferring it to the landfill. Typically, Rentech requires from six to 15 acres for its facilities, which will include power generation capability in the 35-48 MW range.

Rentech intends to own and operate the facilities, but longer term, Ramsbottom said the company will consider selling the plants and licensing to utilities or other entities. In terms of the longer power contracts, he said there is already a lot of interest, particularly in Rialto, which is ideally located next to a major Southern California Edison transmission line.

"Our goal is to fill the pipeline with these projects -- both domestically and internationally," Ramsbottom said. "We have inquiries from around the globe, but we want to get as many of these as we can built in the United States because we think it is an opportunity to address three issues: landfills, clean transportation fuels and power."

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