December 12, 2014

Closing the Loop: Fueling Trucks with the Organic Waste They Pick Up

When you placed your food waste at the curb last time, did you consider the journey it’s about to take? You could find it coming back down your street the next month as the fuel in the truck that picks up that week’s organic waste. That’s closer to Doc’s “flux capacitor” from the 1985 movie Back to the Future than most people ever imagined – and the fuel is powering trucks on American roads and around the world right now.

Biogas, or natural gas from organic sources, has been used for decades and was recognized as a renewable source for electricity. In the intervening years, natural gas fuel stations and the natural gas vehicle base has expanded, opening up the market for renewable natural gas (RNG) use in transportation.

Refuse operations across North America are embracing the opportunity to fuel trucks with the very waste they pick up. The RNG created with processed organic matter such as food scraps (or in other cases landfill gas) can power trucks equipped with a natural gas engine such as Cummins Westport ISX 12G or ISL G engines.

In North America, fleets and energy partnerships from Georgia to Quebec to California are embracing the concept, saving waste and money in the process. The vehicles operating on RNG from organic sources include refuse or sanitation trucks, pickup trucks, utility vehicles, and tractors.

The quasar biodigestion facility in Columbus, Ohio
The Columbus, Ohio quasar biodigestion facility

Columbus, Ohio has one such partnership, where three parties have joined with a long-term view of RNG as a fuel for the municipality. The collaborative project turns municipal organic waste into energy to power 750 homes, fuel a municipal fleet, and the remnants will be used in recycled lawn and garden products. The Columbus facility project was designed and built by quasar energy group (quasar), who received an Energy Vision Leadership Award in November.

When asked why quasar was the choice of Energy Vision to receive the award, Matt Tomich, Vice President of Energy Vision said, “It is out-front as an anaerobic digestion company, starting in 2010. They are an early leader with the most projects. Above and beyond that, they have projects where a portion is being used to fuel the trucks they operate.”

Mark Suchan at quasar energy group says, “Our drivers have commented multiple times about the pride of running on a clean burning fuel without a change in horsepower or performance compared to diesel. There is not a more sustainable option available in the marketplace to fuel our vehicles on the gas that quasar facilities produce from anaerobic digestion of materials that previously went to the landfill.”

Sacramento was the first U.S. city to embrace the food waste to fuel idea. Atlas Disposal hauls food and organic waste to the CleanWorld biodigester, where the food is processed into biogas, then refined into renewable natural gas, or biomethane, suitable for vehicle fueling right from the adjacent station. The Sacramento Biodigester began by converting 25 tons of food waste per day into RNG, but it’s capable of converting 100 tons per day.
Using the organically-sourced RNG, or biomethane as it is sometimes called, as a vehicle fuel is the same as natural gas.
Matt Tomich added, “In Sacramento, they say the fuel is identical to the natural gas at the other stations. They haven’t had any issues related to fuel quality.”

Programs and partnerships such as these are popping up across North America and around the world. Some use only one source matter or a combination of several, from food scraps to human waste to landfill gas, but the results are the same. Addressing the needs and wishes of the customers or constituents these fleets serve, refuse fleets using natural gas run quieter, emit fewer toxins, and those using renewable natural gas have the benefit of a completely sustainable energy source.

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