Rob White Talks About Turning Trash Into Gas and Glass At JumpStart



Former Chief Innovation Officer of the city of Davis, Rob White, on Wednesday evening talked about his new gig as Chief Strategist at Sierra Energy and the innovative programs they are doing.

“What I want to talk to you about tonight is a nuisance – trash,” Rob White explained. “We hate trash. We hate waste. We the city of Davis are a sustainability community, we have a problem.” He explained that Yolo County collects over 500 tons a day of waste. Most of this ends up in the landfill, some gets put into recycling.

For much of our waste there is no other option then it ending up in the landfill. Something, he explained, that “is a problem for society.”

Rob White explained that many European countries are forced to burn their waste, and “that’s a horrible idea because it creates more toxic waste.” It is not that landfills are bad, instead, “when we put something in the earth there is a life cycle and a cost to that.”

In California, he explained that we have a goal by 2020 of recycling 75 percent of our waste. We may or may not reach that goal. Part of the problem is that even material which could be recycled is often contaminated or otherwise will not be broken down, and therefore it ends up in the landfill. Moreover, the landfill doesn’t have the ability to separate out materials that will break down from those that won’t.

Rob White offered two solutions on “Back to the Future” day.   He asked, “What if we could actually put together a process, here in Yolo County, where it goes to the landfill, it gets separated, diverted, recycled, converted, reused, and then everything that’s left has a process and something that it can go to..”

Everything that is not going someplace would end its life cycle by making two new resources. “We here at Sierra Energy are interested in doing what we call a Zero Waste Innovation Park,” he said. “The idea behind that is total waste immersion – not a single thing goes into the landfill from this point forward.”

Rob White explained that Mike Hart, the owner of Sierra Energy, wants to this right here in Yolo County.


How do they create this opportunity? “We think the answer is what we call the FastOx Gasifier,” he explained. He explained, “It means just this: we take heat and melt and we make gas and glass.”

In their system, they don’t combust or incinerate anything. “We move it through a process,” he explained, where they heat it to 4000 degrees, something he likened to a “mini-volcano” and out of that “we get two products. We get synthetic gas which is about 30 percent hydrogen and 70 percent CO (carbon monoxide). And the rest of it is glass.”

He said medical waste, construction waste and ag debris “can all go into this process.” Even after they have been recycled and reused, “there’s still a lot left.”

Rob White explained that their first customers are the California Energy Commission and the Army. They are building this down near Monterey. “For this price, we can actually build something that would end the life cycle of waste,” he said.


He reiterated, “We are going to heat and melt and make gas and glass and create energy somewhere in the Sacramento Region. Again, our preferred location would be hopefully in here in the local area – Yolo County landfill would be an excellent partner but beyond that it’s going to be something that’s going to generate an opportunity space.”

Mr. White said, “What’s one thing that Davis is passionate about? Energy. We want to be energy-independent… What if we could generate energy that has a lower carbon potential right here from our waste and have that sold right into the local community? “

He added, “We’re literally changing the life-cycle costs of how we generate energy.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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44 thoughts on “Rob White Talks About Turning Trash Into Gas and Glass At JumpStart”

  1. Barack Palin

    I’m curious about this new start-up.  Are they planning on setting up at the Yolo dumps or is the waste going to be trucked to their location wherever that might be?  Will there be any pollution coming from the plant?  Any smoke and smoke stacks?

    1. Rob White

      BP – Sierra Energy is not a new startup, but a 10-year old emerging tech company located right here in Davis (across from the university). Our tech space is waste conversion using the FastOx gasifier to create TWO new resources, specifically 1) a synthetic gas mixture of primarily 30% hydrogen and 70% carbon monoxide (CO, not CO2), and 2) a vitrified, stoney material that has very similar properties to obsidian (which as you know is a glassy, volcanic rock).

      One use of the syngas created from the FastOx gasification process is to generate electricity, which has a higher energy potential and lower carbon intensity that natural gas (and is not derived from fossil fuel production). Another use is in hydrogen fuel cells (primarily for transportation). Both hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO) have many other beneficial uses in industry.

      Much of our research and development was accomplished over the last 6 years at the DoD’s Renewable Energy Testing Center (previously at McClellan, but now closed due to federal budget cuts in research). UC Davis was also a collaborator by reviewing and assessing some of our processes.

      We are not interested in competing with existing composting, recycling, reuse, diversion, anaerobic digestion or other processes that can economically take waste and do something else with it. Our targeted feedstock is everything that doesn’t otherwise have a process to convert it to a higher use… namely, everything else actively going into the landfill on a daily basis. By ending the waste cycle permanently, and creating new resources that have beneficial uses in society, we are also achieving significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from waste. Though emissions of landfill gases like methane can be captured for use as fuels, these capture plants have a limited lifecycle of 20 to 30 years and then the waste is still in place.

      We have not selected a location for the Zero Waste Innovation Park (ZWIP) yet, but would preferentially like it to be located in the Sacramento region… and we think the Yolo County Landfill would be an ideal location. The ZWIP would include as many of the current (and future) diversion and conversion technologies possible, with the FastOx gasifier being the last step in the process chain for any residual wastes. We are actively working on partnering arrangements with UC Davis, other universities, the national energy research labs, federal/state/local agencies and industry to try and solve a very complex problem.

      We are discussing possible locations for the ZWIP with at least two other locations in Sacramento. The plan is to work with a community that sees the benefit to ending the life-cycle of waste while creating new resources (including energy).

        1. Rob White

          BP – all emissions are captured in our process and constantly recycled back through the gasifier until broken down into either syngas or the stoney materials. Thus we don’t have a “smokestack” or the need for emissions controls to scrub off-gassing on our process. This closed loop system has been tested and validated at the DoD Renewable Energy Testing Center.

        2. Barack Palin

          Thanks Rob.  If the plant was ever located at the Yolo dump that’s something that concerned me as we in Wildhorse live somewhat close to the landfill.

    1. Rob White

      Anon – The FastOx gasification plant we are building for the US Army and CA Energy Commission at Fort Hunter Liggett will cost about $5.5 million and process about 10-15 tons of waste daily from the facility. Subsequent FastOx gasification plants will likely be larger in scale (50 to 100 tons per day). The plant planned for ZWIP would likely be about 100-150 tons per day and will cost an estimated $40 million.  Annual O&M numbers are being assessed, but the entire capital expenditure, O&M and replacement is estimated to be covered by the generation of new resources, specifically synthetic gas and the stoney materials.

      1. Mark West

        “The plant planned for ZWIP would likely be about 100-150 tons per day”

        How does that compare with the daily intake of waste at the Yolo Land Fill? Will that be sufficient to “end…the life-cycle of waste” for the region, or just some fraction? This will not be a 100% efficient process, so what is the expected waste stream from a plant of this size, both in terms of waste gas and ash?



        1. Rob White

          Mark – great thought. The average daily intake at the Yolo County facility is about 500 tons. About 50% of that gets recycled, reused, diverted, etc. The landfill staff are also constantly evaluating new and better ways to increase that diversion and conversion number. Sierra Energy’s view is that we would like to build something that can handle all of the current leftover waste that is going into the landfill. It is a 100% efficient process in the sense that the organics are broken down and driven into the synthetic gas or the inorganics (metals, silicon, etc) are captured in the stoney material. There is no ash. By capturing the inorganics as a vitrified material that has been heated to 4000 degrees F, we are locking the metals, etc into a silica mineral matrix and creating strong bonds that prevent leaching (which has been tested and validated by a third party lab).

    2. Alan Miller

      How much would the FastOx Gasifier cost to build?  To maintain and operate?

      Exactly the same as today’s huge fleet of flying cars built over the last few decades at the manufacturing works on Research Drive in Davis.

      1. Rob White

        Always quick to the jokes… but in this case, Sierra Energy does NOT own the Moller SkyCar operation. We DID buy the building that his company is housed in, but Moller is in the process of moving out and going to West Sac. Sierra staff ARE setting up the Area52 non-profit incubator at this location and DID buy much of the tooling from Moller so that the Davis community can have access to make their own products. Previous owners of a building don’t typically dictate future operations for the new owners, and in this case, Area52 gets its name from the heritage of the previous owner, and that’s about it.

      1. tribeUSA

        re: produces 70% CO–do you mean 70% of the carbon-containing waste gases; such that 70% of the carbon in the organics is converted to CO? I wouldn’t want to be a bird flying near the waste plume, or to live within a mile or so downwind of the plant (depending on how much is being emitted). Are you sure that at 4000 degrees (or downstream in the waste gas stream where it’s a bit cooler) the CO is not oxidized fully to CO2?–I’m not sure what happens at these very high temperatures; at normal combustion temperatures CO2 would be the major product of organics combustion.

        CO is a highly toxic gas in and of itself, and I believe that in the atmosphere it helps catalyze production of other harmful gases (including ozone and methane)

        CO itself is a greenhouse gas, and eventually CO is converted to CO2 in the atmosphere; so no net greenhouse gas savings there (not a big deal, but just mentioning for the sake of clarity–this won’t help with the greenhouse gas situtation).

        Having said all this; it does seem to me this is an intriguing thing to explore and evaluate; it could turn out to have some distinct advantages over other alternatives.

  2. Jerry Waszczuk



    Adler Diplomat 3 with gas generator (1941)

    The process of producing energy using the gasification method has been in use for more than 180 years. During that time coal and peat were used to power these plants. Initially developed to produce town gas for lighting and cooking in the 1800s, this was replaced by electricity and natural gas, it was also used in blast furnaces but the bigger role was played in the production of synthetic chemicals where it has been in use since the 1920s.
    During both world wars, especially the World War II, the need of gasification produced fuel reemerged due to the shortage of petroleum.[6] Wood gas generators, called Gasogene or Gazogène, were used to power motor vehicles in Europe. By 1945 there were trucks, buses and agricultural machines that were powered by gasification. It is estimated that there were close to 9,000,000 vehicles running on producer gas all over the world.

    The first wood gasifier was apparently built by Gustav Bischof in 1839. The first vehicle powered by wood gas was built by Thomas Hugh Parker in 1901.[1] Around 1900, many cities delivered syngas (centrally produced, typically fromcoal) to residences. Natural gas began to be used only in 1930.
    Wood gas vehicles were used during World War II, as a consequence of the rationing of fossil fuels. In Germany alone, around 500,000 “producer gas” vehicles were in use at the end of the war. Trucks, buses, tractors, motorcycles, ships and trains were equipped with a wood gasification unit. In 1942 (when wood gas had not yet reached the height of its popularity), there were about 73,000 wood gas vehicles in Sweden,[2] 65,000 in France, 10,000 in Denmark, and almost 8,000 in Switzerland. In 1944, Finland had 43,000 “woodmobiles”, of which 30,000 were buses and trucks, 7,000 private vehicles, 4,000 tractors and 600 boats.[3]
    Wood gasifiers are still manufactured in China and Russia for automobiles and as power generators for industrial applications. Trucks retrofitted with wood gasifiers are used in North Korea in rural areas, particularly on the roads of the east coast.

    Nitrogen N2: 50.9%
    Carbon monoxide CO: 27.0%
    Hydrogen H2: 14.0%
    Carbon dioxide CO2: 4.5%
    Methane CH4: 3.0%
    Oxygen O2: 0.6%.

    1. Mike Hart

      Much like saying that solar power, electric cars, water filtration and indoor plumbing won’t work based on 100 years-old citations…  I heard there was a lot of resistance to moving from whale oil to electric lights for similar reasons.

      The technology mentioned has little in common with the Sierra Energy technology except for a generic term “gasification.”  That term actually covers as broad range of technologies as saying “automobiles” and hoping that that is sufficient to discern a 50-year old diesel truck from a Tesla…

      The gas composition that you provided shows the technology you are describing produces the majority of its gas in the form of N2 (Nitrogen) which means that this historic system used air in its process.  FastOx does not.  The output gas from FastOx is roughly 70% CO (Carbon Monoxide) and 30% H2 (Hydrogen) which are very differentfrom the witches brew shown…

      If syngas from FastOx is used for power generation it has a lower emission profile than natural gas while having a significantly negative carbon footprint.  How is that possible?  Every ton of trash thrown into a landfill creates roughly two tons of Green House Gas (GHG) in the form of Methane which the EPA estimates to be 84X more potent than CO2.  By preventing the waste from ever going into a landfill, you prevent 2 tons of GHG going into the atmosphere. BTW- Landfill gas recovery systems, while helpful, prevent roughly 20% of that gas from going into the atmosphere over a roughly 100-year period.

      The only better solution is to not create the waste in the first place- the direction that society needs to move!  But until that happens, FastOx can prevent the methane from ever happening.


  3. hpierce

    Am thinking “Emperor’s New Clothes”, but hope I’m wrong.

    The “chemistry” doesn’t look ‘right’.

    I also hope Yolo County doesn’t “buy-in” until the other supposed projects come to fruition, and prove themselves.

    1. Rob White

      HPierce – thanks for the vote of support… lol.

      Sierra fully realizes that we have to prove out the technology, which is why we are working closely with academia, national research labs and the regulatory agencies to makes sure there is third party validation. It’s a little funny to read an engineer from the public works industry opining on chemical engineering… but I get it. Healthy skepticism is important, but I thought engineers were supposed to look at the data before coming to a conclusion. 🙂  Our process is not hugely complicated, and doesn’t break or alter any of the laws of physics or chemistry… but it does take some pretty specific engineering solutions that were not available just a few decades ago.

      What surprises me most about this dialogue so far is that we are inviting people to take a look at our tech and consider it as a solution that will continue to support the Davis core-belief of sustainability, but it is instead being met with skepticism and dredging up of old ideas. It’s kind of like saying, ‘well the model T was a combustion engine and had lots of emissions, so the Prius is equally problematic.’ Or, ‘my Apple 2E was equal in computational capability to my MacBook Air.’ Technologies evolve… and in Davis, we are working with some of the brightest minds in sustainability and new energy policy and application and we can truly implement some much better solutions than the ones we are accepting now.

      Why not give the tech a chance to demonstrate its viability and applicability before dismissing it out of hand? I am not asking you to accept my word that it works, but at least remain neutral until the data indicates a reason to think otherwise.

      When researchers and scientist at UC Davis and beyond first started talking about climate change and the need for sustainability solutions, many dismissed their ideas a voodoo science. Some still do. But the data was collected and the evidence became undeniable to most rational minds. So my question is why would we want to continue to operate our waste disposal operations in the same way if we know there is a potential solution (that does not include burning)? Several European countries have adopted incineration as the solution for waste disposal, even some very forward-looking, self-identified “sustainability” supporting countries like Sweden, Germany and the UK. We can do better. And Sierra Energy is simply promoting that change in ideals, asking that we instead consider a solution that will end the life-cycle in our current waste disposal process by diverting it from landfills and making new resources.

      And if you aren’t aware, Sierra Energy is a company born out of the UC Davis ecosystem by a founder that went to the university, has hired many that also call UC Davis an alma mater, gives time and funding to help others bring their ideas out of the university and is working hard to support the university with new research opportunities. I would hope you would join us in our effort to continue to support current and future students, faculty, researchers and companies that have roots in and around UC Davis and the community.

      1. Anon

        I am highly supportive of any new technology that would help with the waste/landfill problem (keeping a very open mind on this new technology).  My biggest concern is $$$, and is the reason I asked you how much something like this would cost.  Is there any hope of obtaining grant funding for something like this?  Is this a project where communities using the landfill have to share in the cost, so a joint powers authority would have to be formed?  How is something like this paid for by individual citizens – as part of the utility bill/sanitation fee/Prop 218 process?

        1. Rob White

          Because the gasification process creates two new products that have well developed markets, a FastOx system running in a commercial setting would not require grants and subsidies. So no, the landfill fees don’t go up due to the system, and the revenue from the new resources pays for the capital expenditure and operation.

        2. Barack Palin

          so we have a technology that will make our system work better, and people are afraid?

          Not afraid, but is there anything wrong with getting all the facts together before we can someday all make an informed decision?

          Thanks Rob, I posted the same time as you so I’m adding this:
          it’s starting to sound like a win win for everyone.

          I guess DP knew all the facts already.

        3. Barack Palin

          “sierra energy is a private company, so i’m not sure how much it matters if we are or are not

          Come on DP, this is the People’s Republic of Davis.  If we thought we had a plant going in on the edge of town that was either going to cause harmful emissions or was going to drastically raise the price of trash runs do you really believe that it wouldn’t matter how much the public was informed or that the public had no say in it?  I know you’re much wiser than that.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Ok Monterey County, not the city of. Doesn’t really change my point, but I appreciate the more specific location.

        4. Barack Palin

          I’m fairly sure Rob said they were creating this near Monterey.

          But with a possible future installation at the Yolo Landfill.  Am I missing something?

        5. Barack Palin

          No, he sees Yolo Landfill as a potential client down line.

          Okay, maybe I’m being naive but if Yolo Landfill is a potential client won’t they want to install a plant here or are they planning on trucking the garbage to Monterey County?

        6. hpierce

          Or , it could be (just speculation, admit it is a cynical view) that Sierra Energy is looking to re-route Sierra Railroad, on an alignment that would facilitate a spur to the YC landfill.  Same owner.  Same idea… have government pay for the infrastructure.  Just speculation… but might be what you’re missing.

      2. hpierce

        Well, engineers, including ‘civils’  have to take physical chemistry (3 quarters worth of college courses), and depending on the sub-field that interest them, also organic chem and bio chem.  I have over 20 quarter units of chemistry study.  That is why I said the chemistry doesn’t look right.  I also had classes that looked at the potential for pyrolysis for solid waste management, as part of course work in solid waste engineering.

        I found this…  Are there studies specific to what y’all are pursuing?  I can read these things with over a 50% comprehension level.  Would love to see any third party technical reports on the topic.  It intrigues me.

        Engineers are taught to seek data, evaluate it and appropriately act on their knowledge and judgement.  Just am not seeing the data.  And I have relatives in Missouri, the “show me” state.  At this point, I am skeptical of the long-term success of this technology at a “commercial” scale.

        Also, you said no “subsidies are needed”.  Then why is DoD providing a $3 million grant, with Cal Energy Commission adding unknown more for the Camp Hunter Liggett project?  Am becoming slightly more skeptical.


        1. Anon

          Also, you said no “subsidies are needed”.  Then why is DoD providing a $3 million grant, with Cal Energy Commission adding unknown more for the Camp Hunter Liggett project?  Am becoming slightly more skeptical.

          I was wondering the same thing.  Somehow, somewhere the project has to be paid for by someone!

  4. Jerry Waszczuk

    “By capturing the inorganic as a vitrified material that has been heated to 4000 degrees F,” 
    The FastOx Gasifier Enhances the Blast Furnace
    Blast furnaces are large refactory-lined vessels used in the steel industry to convert iron ore into molten iron. Sierra Energy has enhanced this centuries-old technology by replacing the hot blast of air with injections of steam and oxygen. This allows the gasifier to operate more efficiently and increases the value of the syngas produced. It is this innovation that allows FastOx Gasifiers to produce syngas with high enough energy content to power a combined cycle turbine and clean enough to be used in renewable fuel production.
    Mr. White .To heat up noncombustible up to  4000 degrees F,”  requires lot of thermal energy.  Are guys using bio-gas or natural gas to convert iron ore into molten iron ? How efficient  is this enhanced centuries -old technology ?  I  spent my life generating electricity in  Europe and in United States in different type of power plants including biomass gasifiactions plants .  I am guessing that you could make some money if you get garbage free to burn or City will pay some money to burn the burn the garbage  instead of processing it on  landfill. As i remember it was a great deal for biomass burning plants until farmers were giving their biomass waste to power producers for free . This is very expensive technology to produce power .  Regards . Jerry

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