Cathie Anderson

U.S. Army is teaming up with a Davis startup to turn trash into energy

Sierra Energy is building one of its trademarked FastOx Gasifiers at Fort Hunter Liggett. It will be used to power the base.
Sierra Energy is building one of its trademarked FastOx Gasifiers at Fort Hunter Liggett. It will be used to power the base. Courtesy of Sierra Energy

Listening to Mike Hart describe how his start-up company is turning trash into energy for homes and cars, you’ll be tempted to go home, put your garbage in your car trunk and drive it over to Sierra Energy’s Davis headquarters.

You can’t, but Hart hopes one day to have facilities around the world harnessing the power of such waste.

Essentially, the company uses a blast furnace to heat metals, glass, ash and organic solids to a temperature of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the temperatures at the center of a volcano, Hart said. That process yields liquid metal, liquid slag, carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

“People always ask, ‘What are you powering it with? Is it electricity? Is it natural gas?’ ” Hart told me. “No, it’s the garbage. It’s the reaction of the carbon in the garbage, reacting with oxygen, that creates that high temperature … It creates its own power to operate the system.”

As for the byproducts from this process, the hydrogen can power cars, Hart said. The carbon monoxide can be used to make electricity. And the metal and slag both can be re-used to manufacture other products.

With funding from the U.S. Army the Sierra Energy team is constructing a demonstration plant at Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County. It’s fitting that the technology first be demonstrated on an army base since Hart and company refined the process at the army’s Renewable Energy Testing Center at McClellan Park.

Mike Hart, CEO of Sierra Energy, explains how the company's furnaces turn garbage into power. Their proprietary process doesn't require power to heat the solids inside the furnace.

Hart talked to The Bee about his hopes for clean-energy technology, how he came to discover the concept from UC Davis and what life lessons fueled his success.

Q: How much does it cost to build a plant for one of your FastOx Gasifier blast furnaces?

A: The one down at Fort Hunter Liggett, when fully put together, will be about $7 million. It will be used to power the base, and they will be testing multiple outputs, including electricity and renewable diesel. This 20-ton-per-day system could handle all the waste for a town of 25,000 people. This covers 90 percent of the communities in the United States.

Q: Why is the U.S. Army interested in this technology?

A: They can’t leave waste behind. They used to do those burn pits like in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’d dump the trash, pour diesel on top and throw a flare in to burn it. It makes unbelievable toxic pollution. There was a presidential order that said they couldn’t do that anymore. What does that mean? We pack up all our garbage in barrels and ship it back to the United States for disposal, a terrible idea.

Q: How much revenue do you think you can generate from this technology?

A: We went out to Las Vegas last year to WasteExpo, a huge show for people who deal with garbage. We figured we could sell it for $7 million – well, $6.95 million, because we’re marketing people. We booked over $100 million in business over the course of a few days from people who want the technology if the demonstration plant goes well.

Q: This process sounds as though it could cause explosions. Could it?

A: Hydrogen is very explosive. Carbon monoxide is very deadly. In everything that we’ve done as a company, safety is a priority. In working with our manufacturer, Andy J. Egan in Michigan, their first rule was to integrate multiple fail-safes. We’ve done failure analysis over and over again, looking for what could go wrong.

Q: Tell me about a few of the businesses you started as an adult.

A: Probably one of my earliest companies was called Mai-Tie, and it was making Hawaiian neckties which I ended up selling all over the world. The guy who named it was Bill Atkinson (the computer engineer behind MacPaint, QuickDraw and other Apple products). Bill referred to them as the ties that blind.

We were in 120 countries or something like that by the time I sold the company. I did that when I was in college. I started by just taking Hawaiian shirts and cutting them into neckties.

Later, I wanted to get the sand trucks off California Hwy. 17, and there was a group trying to reopen a railroad through the mountains. I helped them and started buying the right-of-way to do that. Then an opportunity came up with a creaky old railroad up in the Gold Country that was about to shut down. That was about 20 years ago.

I managed to get a whole bunch of debt arranged so I could get that railroad acquired, and we managed to turn it around. We went from three to 150 employees. That was Sierra Railroad.

Q: How did you end up adding a clean-energy business to your holdings?

A: In 2001, Sierra Railroad became the first railroad to run 100 percent on biodiesel. The Environmental Protection Agency actually gave me an environmental hero award or the being the first one to ever do this.

The problem was that they made biodiesel from food crops —soybeans typically — and that’s the same thing for ethanol. If you remember, ethanol was this great thing. Farmers were going to make our fuel. Well, then there were food riots in Mexico because you’re taking a food crop and turning it into something more valuable, making food prices go up.

So the question becomes: Is it ethical to use food crops as a source for fuel? And I decided at least for my company, it’s not. Working with UC Davis, we took this idea of turning garbage into a synthesis gas, and that syn-gas can be converted into an incredibly clean diesel that runs even cleaner than biodiesel. One day, I want to use that for my railroad.

Q: What would you describe as early influences in determining your work ethic?

We were poor. There’s no other way to put it. I was raised by a single mom. My brother and I didn’t have a lot of money, so we worked ever since I was probably 8 or 9 years old.

When my mom got divorced, I think it was about 1968 or ’69. Back then, women didn’t get divorced. My mom had no support from her family. She was in California. Her family was on the East Coast. She was a college student and single with two kids. That meant welfare.

She managed to put herself through college without child support. She ended up becoming one of the top scientists for NASA. (Sandra Hart, whose degrees include a doctorate in psychology from UC Berkeley, received the NASA Honor Award three times — once for exceptional scientific achievement, then for outstanding leadership and finally for exceptional service.)

I grew up in South San Jose. There were gangs. I was in a fight almost every day of my life. I learned that you can’t fight everybody and you have to figure out a way not to have a daily disaster.

Then my mom managed to save up enough money for us to move to Cupertino. I went to Cupertino High School I knew Steve Wozniak. I knew Steve Jobs. I actually worked with Steve Jobs for a while at NeXT. I have a badge of honor that he screamed at me a number of times.

Q: What would you describe as a key lesson?

A: The regulatory environment in California is incredibly difficult. We’re the most heavily regulated state in the nation, but we’re the most beautiful. There’s a tension. You don’t want to tear out all those regulations because they’re there for a reason.

But you confront a lot of challenges here. If you start out saying, ‘I want to build a waste gasification plant,’ if you start off with that notion and try to work through the regulatory environment, you’ll never get it done. People will say it’s too risky or whatever.

By working with the Army, we’re going to get the first-of-its-kind system built in Monterey County, at Fort Hunter Liggett. By demonstrating it there, we can make it work throughout the rest of California.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

Mike Hart

President and chief executive officer of Sierra Energy

Age: 54

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from University of California, Davis

A few books that shaped him: