Jean-Louis Kindler is the CEO of Ways2H, a leading commercial provider of Waste-to-Hydrogen solutions for mobility and grid applications. In this conversation, Kindler discusses how to decarbonize the waste processing industry, why waste-to-hydrogen is superior to conventional gasification technologies, the strategic importance of using commercially available parts in innovative new systems, and more. 

The idea of converting waste to gas is not new. A lot of waste facilities use gasification or capture flared methane. So what makes Ways2H’s system different from the conventional gasification system you’d find at an average landfill?

Right now there are two types of biogas. One is biogas that is created and generated on purpose through a process called anaerobic digestion. The idea is you put in wet biomass–things like agricultural waste and food waste that are 100% biogenic–into a big tank that has this kind of soup in it filled with all this waste along with a bacteria culture. Then the bacteria, with the right environment, will eat this waste and the product of their digestion is methane. Then we can extract that methane and use it as biofuel and it is considered renewable because the feedstock is renewable. The other type of biogas is similar because we’re talking about bacteria eating biogenic waste, but the difference is that it is happening inside landfills. Here, the primary purpose is not to produce biogas. Instead, the biogas is kind of an unwanted byproduct of the natural process destroying the waste that is put into a landfill.

What we do at Ways2H is complementary to both of those processes. We take solid biomass and we use heat to physically breakdown the molecules of this solid waste to ultimately produce a gas. When you look at organic waste streams–in other words, waste that contains carbon–a lot of that is food waste and agricultural waste, which usually has a lot of moisture, but there is also paper,wood, textiles as well as other chemically organic compounds like plastics and a mix of all these, which are typically dry and can’t go into an anaerobic digesters.  Solid waste streams like plastic also can’t go into an anaerobic digester, but our process can take it all. In other words, if you take all of the waste that goes into landfills or into an incinerator and remove the ceramics, metal and glass—everything that’s inert—you can divide that into two parts: one that is 100% wet biomass for an anaerobic digester, and the rest of it can go into our system.

The other major difference is that rather than producing methane, which still contains carbon, and therefore generates CO2 when consumed, we produce hydrogen and that hydrogen is fully decarbonized. The only byproduct of using that hydrogen is water. It’s a much cleaner process.

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How has Ways2H’s system evolved over time?

We’ve been around for about 4 years now. We initially worked with a Japanese company that had developed a waste-to-hydrogen process, but in the past year we have changed our direction. We have ceased working with this company to develop our own process. The Japanese company is very good at producing hydrogen, but we felt that from a commercial and industrial point of view it still needed some improvement. Since it was not our process, however, we could not make those improvements. So we went back to the drawing board and decided to develop our own process that is totally different from the Japanese solution. We literally started from scratch and developed our own solution where we decided to use only existing commercial components. More importantly, we also fully integrated a carbon capture and mineralization process, which means that now the Ways2H solution can take organic feedstock and what comes out is a nice steady stream of fully decarbonized hydrogen and mineralized carbon. By reacting that carbon with calcium or magnesium, which are in most cases readily available, we can produce calcium carbonate, which is basically limestone. So all that carbon that goes into our process comes out as limestone, which is a construction material. So for every kilogram of hydrogen our process produces, we are literally sequestering between 20 and 30 kilograms of CO2 equivalent. So the system is fully carbon negative. This is really important because typically about 80% of what we put into our system is biogenic, meaning it comes from plants and was built with carbon that comes from the atmosphere. So this carbon helps plants grow, then those plants are converted into wood, paper, textile, etc., and then they go into our system and that carbon is turned into stone. We are, in effect, sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. 

So does Ways2H consider itself a hydrogen production company or a carbon removal company?

Well, our business model is not to be standalone system operators. We offer our solution to existing operators in the waste handling or processing value chain so that they can use this as a way to divert waste from landfills or incinerators. So these companies will become carbon removal companies. This is huge because this is not something that the waste processing industry is doing right now. 

What are the primary challenges with connecting Ways2H’s system with existing waste processing operations?

The whole waste industry has seen so many failures in this quest for reliable ways to do waste to gas conversion. So when we go to these companies and talk about our solution, they really want to see it in operation. I understand that and it’s perfectly legit. So our primary challenge today is to deploy a first demonstrator of the system and to overcome all those concerns and suspicions from the industry. And we haven’t even started talking about permitting and regulatory issues, which are another major challenge. For that purpose, we are building a demonstrator right now from commercially proven components. That’s important because the process architecture is new—otherwise there would be no innovation—but we want, as much as possible, to mitigate the perceived risk  of implementing this innovation. This is why we are using existing, proven components that our users will already be familiar with. That seriously alleviates the overall industrial risk of the system.  We have actually started discussing the system with potential commercial users and we hope we will be able to announce the first probably around April. 

If this system is so new, how can you be sure that it will work as advertised?

Well, I have already built and operated several iterations of waste to hydrogen systems.  One of my engineers has been part of a team that designed a gasification process for NASA to be deployed on the International Space Station, and another of our engineers has been a plant manager at Dow Chemical for nearly 20 years. So we have the experience that’s needed to bring this to fruition. 

What is the permitting process like for implementing a novel waste-to-hydrogen system at a waste processing plant?

Most of the flue gas and air emissions that come out of conventional gasifiers are CO2 that results from at least partial combustion of the carbon that goes into the system. We don’t consume or burn a single CO2 molecule or carbon atom in our process, so our atmospheric emissions are a little bit of nitrogen and steam. This will need to be confirmed, but this means we should not be subject to atmospheric emission regulation, which is one of the major issues in those gasification processes. We believe that due to the specific architecture of our system that the permitting process will not be nearly as challenging as what our gasification competitors are doing. 

Hydrogen has always been one of those perennially futuristic energy technologies. What makes you think its time has finally come? 

If you look at hydrogen from an industrial point of view, it has really only been exciting for the past maybe 2 or 3 years. There are still lots of people who will tell you there is no market for hydrogen and so who would be crazy enough to work on something like waste to hydrogen? I hate to use this term, but we really are witnessing a paradigm shift in our attempt to get away from fossil fuels. This is a fact. The other fact is that it will not happen overnight. It will be just like how it took us 40 or 50 years from the time the first cars were in use and we were buying gasoline in bottles at the drugstore to get to the point where there were 200,000 gas stations in the US. Likewise, it will take us 50 years to fully switch from fossil fuels to something else. Some of that something else will be battery electric vehicles, the rest will be fuel vehicles–but their fuel will be hydrogen. I totally agree with the naysayers that hydrogen in general—not just waste-to-hydrogen—needs to be more advanced. It will happen, but it will take time. I don’t know how big the hydrogen production infrastructure will be in 5, 10 or 20 years, but hydrogen itself is here to stay.