A pioneering method of turning waste plastic into fuel is quietly establishing a $20 million-plus foothold in Akron.
A startup called Vadxx Energy is spending the big bucks to set up a plant on East Waterloo Road where scrap plastic will go in at one end and liquid fuel will come out the other.
Sixty tons of plastic a day, in fact, to create 300 barrels of petrochemical products used to make diesel fuel and lubricants.
That’s three semi-trailer loads’ worth of plastic that would otherwise end up buried in the earth.
“What better business is there than that — diverting waste material from a landfill?” said company founder and petroleum geologist Bill Ullom.
The project could be the start of a U.S. or even global expansion for Akron-headquartered Vadxx — after roughly eight years of research and development, Ullom said.
“In Ohio alone, we are burying enough plastics to support five to 10 of these plants,” noted Russell Cooper, vice president of business development.
A groundbreaking for the initial full-scale Vadxx plant is being planned for April. The facility is to go up on former city-owned land at the corner of East Waterloo and Kelly Avenue.
The city, eyeing potential job growth, did not charge Vadxx for the 5-acre parcel. In exchange, the city gets a 1 percent stake in the plant’s profits.
“We’ve been nurturing this company [in its testing phase] and this is vacant, underutilized land,” said Brent Hendren, of the city’s economic development office. “It’s a good opportunity to help Vadxx make their first major production plant.”
Akron is welcoming what a neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland rebuffed.
Residents there last year objected to a proposed plant, voicing concern about pollutants. EPA officials say the plant would be a minor pollution emitter.
“We’re melting the plastic, capturing fumes and condensing it into a liquid,” Cooper said. “That process [inside a closed unit] captures most of the pollution.”
The nearly clear, odorless emissions from the plant would be no more than what would be generated by a building boiler, said Cooper and Ullom, the company’s chief technical officer.
The city has had a long courtship with Vadxx. The company started in the city’s incubator, the Akron Global Business Accelerator in a former B.F. Goodrich tire factory in downtown Akron. And Vadxx’s pilot plant — used as a demonstration site to attract investors — is in a small city-owned industrial building on Broadway, not far from the incubator.
Competition in field
Akron is also home to a second plastic-to-energy startup aiming to move soon into commercialization. The other company is RES Polyflow. The RES stands for Renewable Energy Solutions.
Last summer, Polyflow showed off its process at a demonstration in a plant in North Perry, outside Cleveland.
The demonstration was a success, and Polyflow is talking with potential customers, said Michael Dungan, director of sales and marketing.
Competition is more than welcome, he said.
“You need competition for the market to grow and mature. ... It just adds credibility,” Dungan said. “This industry [plastics to fuel] has been marked by failure for decades. Let’s get credibility back into the conversation with a series of successes.”
Akron plant details
The new Vadxx facility on Waterloo will consist of a 25,000-square-foot building housing a snaking “continuous process plant” that includes a 50-foot-long extruder and a 60-foot-long boiler that rotates as it melts the plastic. Initially, the plastic that will be melted at the plant will be waste left over from manufacturing operations.
The process involves slowly melting the plastic, which turns into a vapor. The vapor is cooled and condensed back into liquid hydrocarbons.
About 17 to 18 operators would be needed to run the equipment 24 hours a day. The jobs would pay about $45,000 annually, Cooper said.
Vadxx’s current employment totals eight, up from five earlier this year.
The plant should be completed by the end of the year, Ullom and Cooper said. Operators would then run trials to work out any bugs. After three to six months, it would be at full production.
Already, Cooper said, Vadxx is talking with a “major fuel marketer” about buying the petrochemical products.
So where does a small startup get the financial backing for a $20 million plant?
Earlier this year, private equity firm Liberation Capital closed a financing deal for the plant. Liberation Capital, in Charlotte, N.C., specializes in financing for renewable energy, water and wastewater projects.
Rockwell signs on
That funding allowed Vadxx to sign a deal with global industrial company Rockwell Automation to design and oversee construction of the Akron facility. Rockwell Automation has developed plastic-to-energy plants in the United Kingdom.
NorTech, the nonprofit that advocates growth in the region’s high-tech economy, takes a big part of the credit for bringing the two together, at events and meetings for businesses in what NorTech has dubbed Northeast Ohio’s “advanced energy” industry cluster.
Dave Knowles, with Rockwell Automation’s Twinsburg office, said the company is a conservative organization and worked with Vadxx for two years, investigating the process and Vadxx’s business before deciding to sign on in the role as a general contractor.
“There was absolutely no way that Rockwell’s going to be associated with a plant” if it was deemed too risky, he said. “There was a good strong financial, business acumen to Vadxx that was a critical part of our decision process.”
He’s happy to see it going up in Akron as opposed to Cleveland: “Where else would you want to build it but in the polymer capital?”
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or email@example.com.