Cathie Anderson

Roddenberry Foundation sends Davis start-up boldly into future with $150,000 prize

Davis startup transforms trash into renewable energy

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.
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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.

If Davis start-up Sierra Energy needed validation that its renewable technology is boldly moving mankind into the future, it has received it from the Roddenberry Foundation, the philanthropic organization founded in memory of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry.

The tiny clean-tech company was one of four companies receiving a $150,000 innovation award as part of the foundation’s inaugural competition, selected from among 600 applicants in 70 countries. The grand prize of $400,000 went to Opus 12, a Bay Area start-up that is developing a process to take industrial carbon dioxide emissions and transform them into useful products.

The Sierra Energy team is working toward a future where there will be no need for landfills. Paul Gruber, the company’s vice president of external relations, told me they can take nearly any form of trash that has carbon in it, put it in a blast furnace, heat it to temperatures of 4000 degrees Fahrenheit and create an energy-rich synthesis-gas, or syn-gas, that can be refined into multiple uses: electricity, fertilizer, biodiesel fuel.

“By the way, it’s not incineration,” he said. “It’s not burning. It’s just a very high heat, high pressurization that we achieve, which does molecular recycling….That vaporizes the material. It just deconstructs it to its original elements really.”

The application for the Roddenberry Prize emphasized Sierra Energy’s desire to do a humanitarian project in Mexico, where it hopes to build a furnace that will serve residents living in a slum near a landfill, Gruber said. The idea came from commercial contacts that Sierra Energy has in Mexico, companies interested in investing in the idea, Gruber said.

“For the Mexico project, we’re looking at (processing) about 25 metric tons of waste,” Gruber said. “Twenty-five wet metric tons or 20 dry metric tons would produce 1 megawatt of electricity.…In the U.S., that’s enough to power 1,000 homes year-round. In Mexico, where the power demand will be a lot less, particularly in a slum, we could do a lot more.”

The company currently is building a pilot plant for its furnace, which it calls a FastOx Gasifier, at the U.S. Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County. Read the Inside Business interview with Sierra Energy CEO Mike Hart about that project and his entrepreneurial success on Page D1 of Sunday’s Business section.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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