How Lockheed Martin Generates Renewable Energy from Waste: Q&A

In a time when landfills are reaching capacity and waste generation doesn’t appear to be slowing down, Craig Moeller sees opportunity. The director of advanced energy generation for Lockheed Martin is working to take unwanted materials and convert them into useful energy, without producing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases.

In March 2016, Lockheed Martin announced the consolidation of its various efforts into a new line of business called Lockheed Martin Energy, which Moeller leads. Their main areas of focus are energy management, energy storage, nuclear systems, tidal energy, and bioenergy.

Moeller will be speaking about the future of waste management the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference next month. Recently we caught up with him to learn more about how his division at Lockheed Martin is working to turn waste into energy.

What does your work at Lockheed Martin Energy entail?

I have a portfolio of all the things that Lockheed Martin is doing to generate alternative advanced energy methods. That includes waste-to-energy — municipal waste and biomass. We’re looking at hospital waste and potentially even sludge. The focus is on developing electricity from that waste. Another part of my portfolio is marine energy — energy generation through currents, tidal flows, river rapids.

What does reducing and reusing waste mean for Lockheed Martin Energy?

We’re trying to help in all stages of energy from generation to efficiencies to alternate energy types to distribution. We see a market. Waste generation around the world is expected to almost double by 2025. Landfills are filling up. Something has to be done. Lockheed Martin wants to be part of the solution.

How has the treatment of waste changed over time, and how is it being used for energy now?

The big thing with waste has been incineration. That’s certainly an efficient method in some respects, but it has downfalls. It produces a lot of greenhouse gases. The world realized that we’ve got to have alternative methods. There’s been a lot of work in a field called advanced gasification.

We partner with Concord Blue, and we’re using their technology to take waste and generate syngas, a synthetic gas rich in hydrogen that also has carbon monoxide in it — things you can use to fuel electric engines, turbines, and plants that would normally use natural gas. You’re not getting it to the temperature of incineration. You’re transforming waste into this gas and limiting the greenhouse gases.

What are your current projects involving this technology?

We have a small-scale 250-kilowatt gross output demonstration facility in Owego, New York, to prove out the Concord Blue advanced gasification technology. We take the theory and implement it at a working facility that continuously generates syngas. Electricity is a good byproduct as we look at different feed systems like biomass, municipal waste, or something else. We can offset electricity at the facility.

In conjunction, we have our first production project with Concord Blue in Herten, Germany. It’s a 5-plus megawatt facility gross output that’s going to do biomass like wood chips. It’s enough electricity to power about 5,000 homes.

What are the biggest challenges you face in turning waste into energy?

There are several challenges. We have the demonstration plant in Owego and then Herten, but we’re not to “whole production,” where we’re signing up a lot of clients. We’re still proving out that we can reliably sustain a facility that’s generating enough syngas to develop electricity on a day-to-day basis. Think of it as part of the test phase.

Feedstock, depending on what it is, has different challenges for how to get it, prepare it, and convey it into the system. With biomass — wood chips — there is a balance of how much electricity we can develop on an output depending on moisture. You want the feedstock to be dry because water will vaporize in the system. That affects your components and dilutes some of the syngas. Then you have to worry about size. You can’t put big chunks in the system.

When you move to municipal waste, you want feedstock to have a significant carbon content. By the way, plastic does. One of the really good things about advanced gasification is we can even feed in plastic. But we have to take out metals, concrete, rocks, and things that are not carbon-based that aren’t going to provide any energy content. Luckily there’s a market for recycling.

Then a more exotic feedstock like sludge is a big problem because it’s 80 to 90% water. That takes a lot to process. People want to talk sludge, but that technology is still in development.

You mentioned medical waste, too. How do you treat that?

For any society, that is the hardest. There are infectious materials and needles so you don’t want to bury it. Instead, it goes into advanced gasification. You heat it to a temperature where it’s not burning but is turned into a gas. Then we clean it up and make syngas. You’d be surprised, but there is energy content in medical waste.

How does energy fit into Lockheed Martin’s business strategy?

We’re working end-to-end across the whole spectrum. People ask me all the time, ‘Why is Lockheed Martin in energy? It doesn’t make sense.’ If I relate something we’re doing in our mainstream to what we’re doing with energy, you would say, ‘Oh, that makes total sense.’ What Lockheed Martin does well is systems integration and proving out technologies. Energy is another set of products for us to work on.

Lockheed Martin and Concord Blue want to get to the point where we have an offering of different sizes of waste energy. Someone can say, ‘I have this much waste I’m generating every day’ or ‘I’m in a remote site’ and we have a scalable solution. We’re using garbage to develop the fuel we need.

Craig Moeller will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference in Denver June 5-7, 2017. His track, The Next Era of Waste Management, starts at 2:10 pm on June 7.

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