Rural innovation, urban transformation

Rural innovation, urban transformation

If there’s one thing the people of Abengoa have learned, it’s this: Innovation has a forward momentum all its own.

Like an irrepressible stream, technology constantly moves forward as one innovator builds upon the work of another; as one advancement leads to the next.

It’s this unstoppable progression that’s taken Abengoa from the wind-swept cornfields of Kansas to the urban landfills of Salamanca, Spain, asking this question: If we can turn agricultural waste (corn stover) into energy, can we do it with urban solid waste?

The signs are pointing to “yes.” Since July of 2013, Abengoa’s demonstration plant in Salamanca has been turning batches of solid municipal waste into ethanol with promising results — and the company is looking to bring the technology to urban centers in the U.S.

Bioethanol is created through the distillation of organic sugars — and the same enzymatic process that extracts sugars from corn stover can extract sugar from the organic biomass found in municipal landfills. The biggest difference is in the preparation and pretreatment of the feedstock — while agricultural waste tends to be homogenous, a city’s landfill contains a variety of material, much of which has to be sorted and removed (metals, recyclables and non-organic waste, to name a few).

This variability in feedstock can lead to some dramatic swings in the efficient production of ethanol and renewable sugar-based materials. So why try it?

For one thing, urban landfills are a growing problem as densely populated areas of the U.S. (and other countries) are simply running out of room to throw things away. Turning solid waste into ethanol helps slow landfill spread and creates energy in the process.

Secondly, two-thirds of the U.S. population lives along the densely populated, more urbanized coasts — and their energy needs aren’t shrinking. The ability to provide renewable energy at scale, in multiple locations, closer to the end user is a win-win scenario for both the consumer and the planet.

We’re already starting to see the benefits of renewable fuels, chemical compounds and plastics that can be created from organic sugar. As Abengoa takes this technology and spreads it from the farm belt to the industrial belt — and from corn-based to landfill-based — it hopes to bring the promise of a cleaner future deep into America’s busiest cities.