Auto shredder residue – the plastics-contaminated metal that car recyclers can't do much with nowadays besides landfill it – could become a new source of power if Chinook Energy has its way.

The Cranford, N.J.-based subsidiary of Chinook Sciences is taking a technology that's been used for years in recycling and putting it to use in gasification -- that is, turning trash into a gas that can be burned to spin a turbine and make electricity.

It's far from the first to try this (see The Iron Man of Greentech Gets $20M and Biofuels and Electricity Take Out the Trash). But Chinook Energy President William Gleason thinks its new joint venture with European Metal Recycling Ltd. to build the first car waste-to-energy plant will succeed by simultaneously solving energy and recycling challenges.

Gleason said Chinook has secured financing for the plant, which will take in about 120,000 tons of auto shredder residue a year and churn out about 30 megawatts of power. He wouldnt disclose the cost of the plant, but said that projects of its size and scope are typically in the $100 million range.

But selling electricity will only make up about 60 percent of the plant's revenues, Gleason said. About 20 percent will come from the "tipping fees" the plant will collect for taking the car waste it will use – a key part of the business plans of many companies seeking to convert trash to energy.

And another 20 percent of the plant's revenues will come from the metals that can be recovered through Chinook's "active pyrolysis" gasification system, he said.

The process involves carefully managing the well-known process of exposing material to heat in the absence of oxygen – thus preventing combustion – to gasify the plastics and other energy-rich trash while leaving the metals intact, he said.

Chinook Energy has several more projects in "advanced development" in the United States, Gleason said, though he wouldn't provide details. The company was formed in 2008 to commercialize the energy-production potential of the technology developed by Chinook Sciences, which was formed in 1998 and has its system in use in 17 recycling locations around the world, he said.

Meanwhile, out in Iowa, a San Francisco-based startup is seeking to turn corncobs into a key ingredient for fertilizer that's now almost exclusively made from natural gas – anhydrous ammonia.

SynGest Inc. announced Wednesday that it plans an $80 million plant capable of turning 150,000 tons of corn cobs into 50,000 tons of "bio-ammonia" per year once it's built.

That's enough ammonia to fertilize about 500,000 acres of Iowa farmland – but it's a tiny fraction of the 18 million tons that U.S. agriculture consumes each year, half of it imported.

Other companies are seeking to turn corncobs and other agricultural waste into biofuel (see Poet to Produce Cellulosic Ethanol This Year and Ag Giants to Bring Cellulose Feedstock to Biorefinery Doors).

But as far as SynGest CEO Jack Oswald is concerned, "The most valuable thing we can make from crop waste in the Midwest is fertilizer." One big reason is that the feedstocks, and the end markets, are within 30 miles of the plant's proposed location, cutting back on transportation costs, he said.

The concept is to build a number of "mini-plants" that can take locally produced agricultural waste – rice hulls in Northern California, he gave as one example – and turn it into the nitrogen-rich chemical that's the backbone of industrial fertilizer, he said.

And right now, almost all the ammonia in fertilizer is made from natural gas, the price of which accounts for about 90 percent of ammonia's market price, he said.

Right now natural gas is relatively cheap, but ammonia is still selling for about $600 to $800 a ton across various U.S. agricultural regions, Oswald said. SynGest's process can undercut those prices "quite substantially, if we want to," he said.

The technology for turning plant waste into ammonia was developed over the past two decades or so by a group of scientists involved in Unitel Technologies, including SynGest CTO Ravi Randhava, Oswald said. The Iowa plant could be up and running in two years if all goes to plan, he said.

Another byproduct of the process is bio-char, a charcoal that can be used as a soil additive to hold moisture and help reduce nitrogen leaching, he said.

Environmentalists have criticized the U.S. corn-growing industry for its heavy use of fertilizers containing nitrogen. That's because it can be carried by rain runoff into watersheds and thus into oceans, where it has caused a massive "dead zone" in Gulf of Mexico waters near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Oswald said newer "direct-injection" means of applying nitrogen fertilizer could greatly reduce those runoff concerns. But in the meantime, he doesn't see the world's farmers reducing their use of ammonia, part of the mix of primarily fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and pesticides that have allowed growers to achieve massive increases in productivity over the past 50 years or so. 

"Until we evolve into a different system, it's a practical reality – we will all starve if we don't" use fertilizers, he said.

But it's possible that SynGest's ammonia could serve as a fuel as well, if ammonia-based fuel cells come into fashion (see Uncle Sam Wants Portable Fuel Cells). After all, Oswald said, "Ammonia is a better hydrogen carrier than hydrogen," which as a pure gas is explosive and hard to transport.

Ammonia can even be used to make plastics (see this Green Light post).