Cleveland-based Vadxx is taking its continuous pyrolysis technology to the next level by securing the financing, feedstock and end markets necessary to create diesel from plastic scrap.
If you would have talked to Russell Cooper in late 2013, you would have heard that Vadxx was almost ready for commercialization, but missing a last critical piece to the puzzle. But a year and a half and an infusion of capital later, the plastics-to-fuel company has started up its first commercial plant in July and is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2015.
Getting this far took six years and several revisions to the company’s business plan. “When you are in the recycling business, you have to be able to roll with changes,” says Cooper, Vadxx vice president of business development.
Vadxx’s first attempt to commercialize was in partnership with Greenstar Recycling on postconsumer materials in Akron. But Greenstar ran into financial difficulties and the plans were scrapped. Then, Vadxx worked at securing a site in Cleveland. While the necessary permits were secured, the project derailed over site selection. To build the plant, Vadxx went back to Akron, where the technology was incubated, and secured 5 acres from the city.
Vadxx was founded eight years ago by Bill Ullom. He licensed and advanced the technology and moved the rudimentary equipment to Akron, Ohio. The initial, experimental unit was a small bench-top apparatus. In the years that followed, the pilot plant went through four retrofits that scaled the technology up by orders of magnitude and transformed it into a continuous process that could recycle a wide variety of plastic and rubber materials.
After several years of technology research by Ullom, Jim Garrett and Ullom partnered. Together, they named the firm, began establishing business plans, built a management team, and raised money. Garrett credits a whole host of parties throughout northeast Ohio and the state of Ohio with assisting Vadxx early on. Garrett’s efforts to raise capital helped to establish both a team and the footing for the next phase—a commercial proof of concept. The company hung together through some tough times as it searched for the needed millions of dollars required to go from pilot scale to commercial scale.
The big break
With the technology developing and moving forward, the company received news of what they describe as the “big break.” On Dec. 31, 2013, after spending one year on detailed engineering work with a large, Fortune 500 company and more than two years of due diligence by multiple investors, Charlotte, North Carolina-based private equity firm Liberation Capital closed funding to build the company’s first commercial plant.
Earl Jones, a partner with Liberation Capital, explains, “We finance infrastructure that is modular and repeatable. We focus literally at the intersection of clean water, renewable energy and resource reclamation and reuse.”
When Liberation Capital first started discussions with Vadxx, Jones says, his firm “really liked their technical vision around how to transform waste streams into diesel.”
He notes that the financial issues Vadxx faced were not dissimilar to those faced by other new technology companies. “You can raise friends-and-family- and A-series-money, and that can get you through bench-top and to a small pilot, but at some point you have to go build plants, and that funding is hard to find.” He continues, “This is oftentimes viewed as the Valley of Death in clean tech. Going from pilot-scale to first-production-sized plant is really hard. It is a difficult space to get funded and that is exactly what Liberation Capital was geared up to go do.”
Jones says Liberation Capital had invested in other pyrolysis firms, which were not as successful as he expects Vadxx to be. “Through that learning we understand where the technology shortcomings are. The reason we like Vadxx is that they are aware of, and are working hard at addressing, those technology shortcomings.”
The Vadxx technology’s ability to deal with the “variability” in the waste stream was also a strong suit.
Jeremy DeBenedictis, vice president of operations and engineering for Vadxx, was another key figure in taking Vadxx to a commercial scale. He joined the company in 2011. “One of my main goals was to find a large engineering, procurement and construction management (EPCM) firm, and we found Rockwell Automation. Rockwell partnered with us very early when other large firms would not return calls or emails because we were just too early-stage trying to commercialize the technology versus replication of previously proven commercial technology,” he says.
Rockwell Automation, headquartered in Milwaukee, was awarded the $15 million EPCM contract from Vadxx Energy for the project. Stakeholders held a groundbreaking ceremony in conjunction with Earth Day in April 2014 and construction officially was underway by August 2014. Geis Cos. of Streetsboro, Ohio, another partner of Vadxx, constructed the building, while Rockwell Automation designed and installed the processing equipment.
“The last week of July through the first week of August we will hot-commission the process. We will run material through the equipment and produce oil,” DeBenedictis says, “Rockwell will then take back over and complete a Phase II construction, which is the distillation column. Late October, we will start hot-commissioning the column and working to get the entire process to steady state throughout the rest of the year.”
DeBenedictis continues, “We have assembled an awesome team of engineers and operational experts, who have left Fortune 500 companies, to take a risk and be part of something very special. We are where we are today because of them.”
The Phase I startup will convert waste plastic into synthetic oil. In October the distillation column will be turned on. At that point, the oil is just like any crude going through a distillation column. Every ton of recycled waste at Vadxx will convert into five barrels, or more than 200 gallons, of fuel. Initially, the fuel will be sold through local distribution for off-road diesel and home heating fuel.
The plant is expected to produce 300 barrels per day of liquid fuel from 60 tons of plastic. Out of that 60 tons of plastic, approximately 5 to 6 tons of char per day will be produced. The process also produces a synthetic gas, which is recycled and used to heat the main reactor.
The char is a nonhazardous, dry powder that can go to landfill, but may one day soon prove itself as a substitute for carbon black or a fuel to amend coal. Vadxx remains hard at work doing R&D on the char, looking for more valuable markets.
The new facility uses recovered, chopped cable and wire insulation to feed its pyrolysis system. The sources of this insulation include everything from fiber optics to overhead power cable. The company has partnered with Kenton Industries of Cleveland to supply the plant with discarded plastic insulation.
Vadxx has tested a host of landfill-bound wastes over the years—agricultural, automotive, tires, material recovery facility (MRF) residues and consumer packaging. But cable insulation fits the bill for its first plant. The new facility will recycle about 20,000 tons per year of these plastics. That’s 1,000 trucks full of material that would otherwise be sent to landfill, according to Vadxx.
Source sites from Pennsylvania to Indiana provide the waste material to Kenton for final preparation. Kenton still mines out the last residual metal in Cleveland. Then the plastic insulation is cleaned, dried and shipped to Akron where it is stored in one of six storage bunkers inside the Vadxx facility. The bunkers hold about three days’ worth of feedstock. Finally, the plastic is loaded into the system via a conveyor. The plant will run 24/7, so this is really a total supply chain management system. Under the current arrangement, Vadxx recycles waste for free, but charges may occur in the future depending on the price of oil.
What sets it apart
DeBenedictis emphasizes the importance of the Vadxx technology being a continuous process. “We believe we are going to be the first wing-to-wing continuous pyrolysis waste-to-fuel facility in the world, and that starts with the front end where we continuously feed an extruder,” he says.
The extruder takes the plastic through the first few zones of temperature and mixing. The output of the extruder is a hot material of toothpaste-like consistency. The material then goes through a transfer pipe into a rotary kiln.
The toothpaste material coming in acts as a plug on one end of the kiln, and the char as a plug on the back end of the kiln. Inside, with mixing and temperature increasing, the plastic melts and depolymerizes. Upon evaporating, hydrocarbons are then captured and condensed to finish the process. The result is a synthetic crude, which when put into a distillation column results in a light end cut and a middle cut (diesel fuel).
According to the company, its patented, continuous, zone-delineated process, is the key to having a resulting product of consistent quality, while not creating any hazardous byproducts. The highly automated system only requires four people to operate. Plant traffic also is kept to a minimum. Each day three trips plastic waste are dropped off and two tanker trucks of fuel leave the facility.
For some, finally building a facility may seem like a great ending to a long, dramatic story, but for Vadxx, it is just the beginning. “I believe that if successful, we will announce new facilities for postindustrial and postconsumer waste streams before the end of the year,” predicts Cooper. “These operations could be brought online as early as 2017.”
DeBenedictis agrees. “It all starts with plant one and ensuring that it is up and running and that we’ve commercially proven the technology Bill Ullom invented and Dr. Stan Prybyla continues to develop. Three to five years from now, if we have done our job of safely operating the process with consistent quality and predictable delivery we will have Vadxx units all over the planet recycling waste plastic which would have been sitting in landfills for thousands of years.”
He continues, “Every year in the U.S. there are 60 billion pounds of plastic being landfilled. If we could divert that from the landfill to Vadxx units, we would have 1,500 Vadxx units similar in size to Akron, converting the waste to 125 million barrels of energy product, thus creating about 30,000 good U.S. jobs.”
The author is editor of Renewable Energy from Waste and can be reached at email@example.com.
How it works: See inside Vadxx’s Akron, Ohio, pyrolysis facility and find out how it works in an interview with Jeremy DeBenedictis, vice president, operations and engineering, at www.REWmag.com/vadxx-video-report.aspx.
Virtual tour: View a photo gallery of Vadxx’s commercial-scale pyrolysis facility in Akron, Ohio, at www.REWmag.com/vadxx-photo-gallery.aspx.