“Waste streams and biomass harbour untapped value. Effectively refining these materials can unlock vast resources—and turn them into valuable products.” Effectively refining these materials can unlock vast resources—and turn them into valuable products.”
We’re talking to Robert Kelly, CEO at Pennsaco Technologies, and Amy McCrae Kessler, the company’s vice president of environmental affairs. The company’s work provides society access to the valuable resource that we conventionally know as waste—to produce green hydrogen, create carbon negative energy, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and replenish soil and water health.
That happens with a patented system which, with advanced thermal conversion and carbon capture technology, recycles biomass, plastics, and municipal solid waste into renewable energy and biochar.
So, how have they made it happen?
The company started when CEO Robert Kelly developed a process to create a drop-in fuel similar to renewable gasoline — something that was already a well-developed technology at the time. Beside issues of price and demand fluctuating with developments in the oil market, there was a production problem that Robert faced. Biomass does not carry a lot of hydrogen — but it does contain a lot of carbon. And you have to burn that carbon to access the hydrogen.
“Pennsaco really took off when we found a way to make the hydrogen release more efficiently and less expensively,” Robert explains. “We discovered that we could make large volumes of high purity hydrogen in a proprietary process separate from syngas production. From that point, we decided to pivot away from biofuels and turn the biomass into carbon negative hydrogen.”
Image 1: The Pennsaco Process
“Our approach to hydrogen production through thermal conversion is entirely differentiated from the rest of the industry. We are not producing our hydrogen from syngas, which typically contains low hydrogen yields and requires expensive clean up. Pennsaco’s process is so efficient that it allows us to produce three times more hydrogen per ton of biomass than competitors, enough electricity to power our system, and excess electricity that we send to electrolysers for additional hydrogen production capability. There is nothing producing more high purity, carbon negative, low-cost hydrogen on the market today.”
While Pennsaco’s ability to produce large volumes of fuel cell quality renewable hydrogen at low-cost addresses renewable hydrogen industry scaling and cost concerns, the real breakthrough came with a solution to the problem of the carbon. One of Pennsaco’s main assets now is its production of biochar— making it “a carbon negative hydrogen technology”, Amy says.
“If you run biomass through our thermal conversion process you inevitably end up with a carbon product,” Amy explains. “The original technology was designed to create a high-end activated carbon product, which could be used for air and water purification systems or in catalytic converters. To optimize the carbon negativity of our hydrogen, we decided to maximize the amount of carbon from biomass we could permanently capture in that highly activated carbon product and produce biochar – for use in regenerative agriculture and climate change mitigation.”
As Amy and Robert explain, for every tonne of biochar, three tonnes of CO2 are removed from the biogenic carbon cycle and permanently sequestered in the earth through agriculture. Biochar increases the carbon content of the soil, helping to improve crop yields and increasing water retention, while reducing the need for fertilisers and pest controls compared to conventional soils.
Most importantly, biochar enables the permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. And with companies such as Microsoft and Stripe buying biochar carbon removal credits for their carbon portfolios, Pennsaco’s system offers a potentially lucrative model for a carbon negative industry.
Image 2: The Operation Model
But what makes Pennsaco’s technology stand out?
“That’s simple. We do what we do with a 30% greater efficiency than similar technologies, capture 95% of feedstock BTU, produce three times more hydrogen per ton of feedstock, and do it at a much lower price. We also address scaling, cost, and speed of deployment challenges faced by green hydrogen from wind or solar to electrolysis: we produce four times the hydrogen yield per megawatt at a fraction of the price, we aren’t constrained by electrolyser capacity, cost, or availability to scale, we have a compact footprint, use a third of the water, and don’t require hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure costs to produce industrial
and utility scale volumes of renewable hydrogen,” Robert tells us.
“Meanwhile, a single site can convert hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste and CO2 that would otherwise end up as landfill or greenhouse gases into millions of kilograms of carbon negative hydrogen for the transportation, energy, and industrial decarbonisation sectors and tens of thousands of tonnes of biochar for carbon removal and regenerative agriculture annually.”
“Our job now is to show the world the benefits of this technology. Right now, there is an overwhelming preference for using electrolysis to create hydrogen—and so much investment is going into scaling the world’s electrolysis capacity. But using renewable energy such as wind and solar to generate green hydrogen through electrolysis costs six times as much as making hydrogen through Pennsaco’s thermal conversion technology, will never have carbon removal capability, must compete for wind and solar resources allocated to decarbonising the electric grid by governments around the world, will take decades to scale, and does nothing to address the tens of millions of tons of CO2 we need to be removing annually from the atmosphere between now and 2050 to meet global goals of limiting climate change to 1.5C.”
“Really, our established technology could do a lot to change the world.”