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Meet the Silicon Valley Startup getting rid of CO2 By Turning Waste into Energy

As the hottest winter in the history of Planet Earth fast approaches, people are demanding from governments and businesses systemic change. We need safer, greener energy and materials that won’t destroy the few natural, precious resources we have left. A Silicon Valley startup seems to already have one solution at hand. 

Dario Presezzi and Valentino Villa, CEO and CFO of BioForceTech, are captains of a ship sailing in the uncharted seas of producing renewable energy from waste. These guys can make energy out of the slimy sludge that clogs up pipes, which would otherwise end up in landfills.

After years of intense labour and engineering, their project might be finally getting the recognition it deserves; but these pioneers have struggled for survival in the ultra-competitive land of the big tech giants, due to a society which still chooses comfort over technological innovation. What’s more, this technology could, on a large scale, drastically reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The solution? Governmental regulations, the two Italian-born trailblazers says. Yet, when it comes to revolutionizing a whole system, the pace is still painstakingly slow.

Aerial view of BioForceTech’s plant in Silicon Valley, California, US

Straight into the deep end: is it possible to make money whilst saving the Planet? And if so, how do you do it?

Dario: The answer is straightforward: yes it is. However, in practical terms, we’re still a while away from doing so in a way that is 100% viable.
For the last 150 years, we have been exploiting intensively to the point that we’ve created a big, giant mess. Human beings have created a culture where we take, we use and then we dispose of. Each year, billions of tons of organic waste are dumped into landfills, damaging the environment, limiting human resources on earth, and destroying potential economic value. We all know it’s not sustainable. So we invented a way of repurposing something that would otherwise not only go to waste, but actually cause harm to the environment. 

We invented and deployed a system that combines the most efficient way of drying organic matter with pyrolysis. This is a specific process that decomposes organic waste at high temperatures in a low oxygen environment. Not only do we emit very low amounts of CO2, but we fix what would turn into excess CO2 into a solid product. In other words, we transfer the CO2 into the product, so we take it out of the atmosphere. 

Our motto is “Nature is Awesome”, and everything in our business reflects that. We are all about changing the world using the information we have to shape the future the way we envision it. That’s why we have created the first environmentally-friendly, energy-positive plant in the world, by turning organic waste into biochar.

Biochar made from sewage waste

What is biochar?

Biochar is a form of charcoal made by heating organic waste in an oxygen-deprived environment. But its purpose is not to burn: it improves soil function, hence it is often called a soil amendment. It allows more nutrients to stay in the soil instead of leaching in groundwater.  

Biochar is biologically active, meaning it benefits fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms, while charcoal doesn’t have that beneficial effect on the environment. The other intent of using biochar is to decrease the emissions from biomass, which would naturally degrade into greenhouse gases.

I had no idea organic waste posed a threat to the environment. How so, if it’s something essentially natural? 

Dario: Well, first of all, landfills take up vast pieces of land. So that’s already a first instance of disrespecting the Planet. Secondly, the components of the biowaste leak into the soil, going into the groundwater and making it toxic. Thirdly, when the waste decomposes, it releases methane, which is 30 times more potent than CO2!

Where does this organic waste come from?

Dario: It comes from the sewage. It’s the solid matter which comes from households and industrial wastage systems. So it’s literally seen as the end of the chain. Yet, 8 years ago, we saw potential in it. And here we are, transforming organic waste into something great, something that has added financial value.

From organic waste to soil amendment

According to a group of scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, we currently face planetary collapse. Our Planet is in big trouble. If this technology you’ve invented is something that could potentially revolutionize the way we make energy globally… how come things aren’t going that way yet?

Valentino: Waste is still money, it’s still politics. We’ve encountered resistance on different fronts. There’s the technology front, there’s the environment. There’s legislation. It’s a complicated context.
What we’ve done in the last seven years is get to a point where the technology has been proven to work and accepted. We finally got there. We’re installing more plants, we have engineers that trust us, plant owners that trust us. So the fact that things aren’t evolving as fast as we all would like them to is down to a variety of factors.

Dario: So to answer your question, “Our Planet is in trouble so why don’t we do something?”… here we go. There are so many aspects involved that, unfortunately, thinking of the bigger picture is more difficult for people that what we’d like it to be. At the end of the day, people wake up and go do their job.

Someone in the packaging industry told me that there is a generational discrepancy…would you agree with that?

Dario: Uhm, no, for us it’s been quite a different experience…we’ve seen people from older generations, who are retired right now, with a fantastic mentality, and younger people who are not so keen on novelty… or don’t necessarily care too much about being sustainable.

Valentino: I mean, we’re also in California, we’re in Silicon Valley…

Dario: Yeah, this is a pretty special place, I would say. We have a lot of forward-thinking people who are in their 70s-80s. I think it’s just more of a general system thing – there are laws in place… well, as Valentino was saying, even if I want to do something beneficial, there’s an infrastructure in place that doesn’t allow it.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California

We’re almost in 2020, technology has evolved, and it offers plenty of solutions to deal with the urgency the Planet is facing, we can recover resources…but if the laws are not behind it… what can we do?

Valentino Villa, BioForceTech CFO

The only way we can change things and that we can be truly successful as a company with our mentality, is that the government puts regulations in place that boost regeneration. But while plastic can still be bought everywhere and it costs less than other packaging, people will just buy it. Business owners have families to support and bills to pay. But, if the government said it wasn’t possible anymore, people would be incentivised to look for for alternative packaging. 

The same applies to our industry. Waste-to-landfill is still the cheapest option, so there are no incentives for people to change their habits. If the government stepped in and said “You can’t do this anymore because it’s destroying the environment” people would pay to find a solution for it. So change really is government-driven, in this case. 

The current US federal government has made no secret of the fact it is not interested in funding clean energy. What about the state, the government of California?

Valentino: Unfortunately the process is very slow. The new administration cut funding, so everything is at a standstill. From a regulation standpoint, we’re still stuck in 1993. We’re in almost 2020, technology has evolved, and it offers plenty of solutions to deal with the urgency the Planet is facing, we can recover resources…but if the laws are not behind it… what can we do?

Luckily, forward-thinking states like Oregon, Washington and California can put in place different regulations locally. But there’s still a lot of unknown. And the unknown in business, unfortunately, brings a lot of extra costs. It means that we have to prove that the technology works… it took us four years to get the planning permission for our plant. That time-frame can kill a small business! Four years for a business in Silicon Valley means you’re dead. But we believe in it, and that’s why we’re putting our heart and sweat and blood into this. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we seem to be on the right track. A lot of people say that we have the future in our hands, so we hold onto that.

Dario: I believe we’re going to see big differences in the next few years. The conversation on climate is everywhere, it doesn’t just appear in the papers once in a while anymore. It’s an everyday topic… regulations will come. 

Alternatives to fossil fuels are kinder to our ecosystem, will reduce our societal dependency on oil and make our lives more sustainable in the long-term.

You also create renewable energy. Could you explain in layman’s terms how you do so?

Dario: Organic materials are packed with energy. Challenge number 1: they are full of water. So we designed this bio-drying system which utilises bacteria instead of natural gas. We use life energy, rather than fossil fuels, to dry biomass. Once the biomass is dehydrated, it has the same consistency as wood, so it can burn. We use the method explained earlier, pyrolysis, which heats it up without adding any oxygen. This breaks down the molecules into smaller units, and they become gas.

Does this process create any pollutants at all?

Dario: Well, combustion creates CO2. With pyrolysis, 20-30% of the CO2 emitted becomes a fixed structure, and that’s the biochar, and that carbon will never go back into the atmosphere. So the more we make this process, the more CO2 we can get rid of.

Who are your main clients?

Farmers especially are using it because it re-purposes the soil. We are doing research focussing on materials, so utilizing this biochar as carbon black. We are trying to substitute a powder used to colour black plastic, which is produced from petrol. Additionally, we are researching building material and how to use biochar – in that it could be used as a substitute for sand- so to lower the CO2 emissions in cement production.

Valentino: the goal is to make these products a commodity, so they can be used in industries. Fortunately or not, we are to date the only producers of biochar from sewage sludge in the whole US. It gives us an advantage because we’re the first on the market. But it also means we needed to create a market for it. Which is very energy-intensive; it requires a great deal of reinvesting into marketing, research etc… it’s a work in progress.

What does the future foresee for BioforceTech? Are your sights set on going global?

Dario: Yes, our vision is to go global. We design our machines to be pre-built and they can be shipped around the world. We think about how to make them as economically viable as possible, easy to install in any country and to use, so you don’t necessarily need a very high skilled professional around. The vision is there, we want to get there…

You say you believe in the individual’s inner potential. What does that look like in practical terms? What’s it like to work for you?

When we interview people we don’t look at where they come from. We look at the person. I don’t necessarily look at a CV. I need to know: do you believe in what we believe in? Do you share our values? How much are you willing to invest in it? This is not a normal job, this is a lifestyle .. you have to share the vision. Otherwise, it’s gonna be pretty hard to be part of our team. It’s about your intention – not your credentials. 

When we interview people we don’t look at where they come from. We don’t necessarily look at a CV. We look at the person. It’s about your intention – not your credentials.

Dario Presezzi, BioForceTech CEO
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