College of Engineering News Room

Fueling Trucks and Jets with High Octane Waste

By Brad Stager

Turning trash into fuel could potentially be a big part of achieving energy sustainability, and a grant from the U.S.  Department of Energy will help researchers associated with the College of Engineering further develop a process that produces diesel and jet fuel from garbage.

The $2,327,759 grant was awarded to T2C-Energy (T2CE), a bioenergy company founded by Professor Babu Joseph and Associate Professor John Kuhn of the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, as well as former chemical engineering graduate students Devin Walker, Tim Roberge and Syed Gardezi. The award funds further development of the patented catalytic TRIFTS® process, which converts biogas to drop-in hydrocarbon fuels that require no modification to vehicle or equipment engines.

Taking university-level innovation out of the lab and into the marketplace is the idea behind a research spin-off company like T2C, according to Joseph, who is also the company’s chief technology officer.

John Kuhn Babu Joseph

John Kuhn                             Babu Joseph

“T2C has licensed the USF patent related to this technology and has an agreement with USF,” he said. “The purpose of forming the company was to commercialize the patented technology.”

The chemical conversion process T2CE developed creates a synthesis gas, or syngas, from methane generated by biomass feedstock, such as garbage or animal waste. Further refinement creates hydrocarbon chemical chains that can be modified to create specific fuels for use in diesel-powered trucks and equipment or even jet-powered aircraft.

The process can also be used with wastewater treatment plants, or anywhere a large amount of biodegradable material is available, such as farms and factories. In the case of landfills, T2CE’s TRIFTS® catalytic technology can create a closed loop process by fueling trucks with diesel fuel derived from the trash they haul. 

According to co-founder and CEO Devin Walker, the DOE grant is an investment in the future of biofuel and helps ensure it has a commercial presence in the energy marketplace.

“The non-dilutive element of the grant compensates for, and overcomes, the risk associated with backing a breakthrough technology,” said Walker, who earned his master of science in chemical engineering at USF and has more than a decade of experience converting hydrocarbon fuels from a variety of sources, such as plant oil and algae as well as waste.

“The grant becomes the final piece of the puzzle needed for us to ready the technology for full-scale demonstration and establish a self-sufficient finance market beyond demonstration, whereby the focus will turn to financial performance over technology.”

The pilot test facility that has been developed so far resides on a flat-bed trailer for transport to field demonstrations at landfills and other locations where there could be a beneficial commercial application.

The ease of transforming waste to fuel was recently demonstrated at a farm where the T2CE team tapped into the stream of methane from an existing biogas electrical power system. According to Kuhn, who is also T2CE’s executive vice president of research and development, the diesel fuel that T2CE’s patented catalytic process yields onsite is as usable as if it came out of a neighborhood gas station pump and even has less sulfur and aromatics than current diesel products. Kuhn added that using food waste is also a good alternative to using agricultural crops for fuel, such as growing corn or sugar cane to make ethanol.

“Ethanol produced from crops is good because it’s renewable, but generally displaces land where you could grow crops for food. While it does reduce the fossil fuel emissions, there’s some drawbacks to that.”

Getting from a concept validated in a laboratory to a pilot facility that correlates with commercial-scale production has been a long process that began with a shared interest in waste energy research among the three graduate students and two faculty members who founded T2CE in 2012. They formed the company following the awarding of a research grant from the Hinkley Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, which is funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

That award enabled initial development of the proprietary catalyst for reforming biogas into liquid fuel and since then a stream of financial support has flowed from government agencies and bioenergy industry groups as the TRIFTS® technology has demonstrated its capabilities at increasingly larger scales.

Among the many awards T2CE has received are 2012 first place winner of the Department of Energy’s MegaWatt Ventures program, 2013 Sustainability Award at the Southeast Cleantech Open, DOE Small Business Innovation Research, and Florida High Tech Corridor grants totalling more than $1 million.

According to Kuhn, the environment at USF is conducive to developing technology that is beneficial and also has commercial appeal.

“There’s a lot of focus on the spinoff of technology at USF and the entrepreneurial education of students,” he said.

“This went from a research grant and a couple of masters’ theses and a PhD dissertation, that really translated all the way up to something that’s approaching commercial scale production. I think that’s fairly unique from a lot of research projects in the U.S.”

Early adopters of the technology once it reaches commercialization are likely to be from places where fuel is expensive or diesel fuel is in greater demand, such as California, Hawaii, and Europe, added Kuhn.

Before it hits the market though, T2CE will be touring landfills and agribusinesses with their biofuel operation to demonstrate and improve its capabilities. According to Walker, the expectation is that their catalytic system will prove itself as a viable, and valuable, clean energy producer.

“The TRIFTS® technology platform offers a route to decarbonize the waste industry and displace over 6% of petroleum derived diesel with clean, renewable diesel.  By providing a sustainable solution that’s cost competitive to petroleum derived fuels, we are solving a challenge that has plagued many renewable energy technologies.”