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Fulcrum BioEnergy abandons trash-to-fuel plant in Nevada

The waste gasification start-up abruptly laid off most staff in mid-May

by Craig Bettenhausen
June 5, 2024


A chemical plant, photographed at dusk.
Credit: Wayback Machine/Fulcrum BioEnergy
Fulcrum BioEnergy's now-shuttered plant near Reno, Nevada, was designed to convert 219,000 metric tons of garbage per year into fuel.

In a blow to the idea of turning municipal waste into fuels and chemicals, the start-up Fulcrum BioEnergy laid off most of its staff and shut down its flagship plant near Reno, Nevada, in mid-May.

A former manufacturing employee at the facility, speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve their ability to find new work in low-carbon fuels, blames poor management for the company’s apparent collapse. The firm’s website has also gone dark, and its leadership did not respond to requests for comment.

Fulcrum’s gasification process starts with municipal solid waste diverted from a landfill. After drying and some sorting, the waste is blasted with extreme heat in an oxygen-poor atmosphere to convert its carbonaceous content into syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. A Fischer-Tropsch reactor then transforms the syngas into a hydrocarbon mixture similar to petroleum.

The Reno plant started up in late 2022 and sent its synthetic crude oil to Marathon Petroleum for processing. The result, Fulcrum said at the time, was transportation fuel with a carbon dioxide footprint less than 20% that of fossil fuel’s. Described by Fulcrum as the world’s first commercial-scale landfill-waste-to-fuel plant, it was designed to make 42 million L of fuel per year and employed about 120 people.

But Fulcrum struggled to secure permanent operation permits from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, according to the source. State records show that the firm received permits in September 2023 and March of this year, but they also describe stop-work orders as recent as March related to permit modifications needed because of undersized boilers and generators. The company also faced strong local opposition to its planned second project in Gary, Indiana.

In addition to the permitting problems, the company had operational issues stemming from a rush to open the plant in 2022, the source says. “We had shut down for months due to the extensive damage to the plant created by our first production run. We had serious clogging issues that made it impossible to run some equipment.” The plant was forced to run at half capacity and later shut down entirely for repairs and retrofits.

The troubles may have come at just the wrong time for Fulcrum, which had attracted $467 million in investments as of June 2023, according to the financial data firm PitchBook. Leadership at the South Korean industrial conglomerate SK Group, one of Fulcrum’s biggest investors, changed at the end of 2023. Seeing a lack of profit and the difficulty running the plant, the source says, SK’s new leaders halted investment in Fulcrum.

Gasifying garbage into fuels and chemicals has a spotty history as a business. For example, Air Products and Chemicals declared a loss of $1 billion when it gave up on its attempt in Teesside, England, in 2016.

And earlier this year, Enerkem closed its first commercial plant, citing adverse market and regulatory conditions. The facility in Edmonton, Alberta, used gasification to generate methanol and ethanol from a portion of the city’s trash, but it never operated anywhere near its promised capacity, according to CBC News.

Enerkem nonetheless characterizes the Edmonton facility as a technological success. The firm is constructing a plant near Montreal that it says will make 125 million L of biofuel per year from 200,000 metric tons of garbage and wood waste when it starts up in 2025. It is also developing a methanol project in Spain and two projects to make dimethyl ether.

And even if Fulcrum is done for as a company, the idea of turning Reno’s garbage into fuel might still work. “There were major tech issues, but we were constantly improving with time,” the source says. “The majority of the issues came from corporate,” the source says, and the teams on the ground had almost completed the work needed to restart the facility. “It will almost be ready to run if they decide to sell the plant.”


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