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Lancaster reaches agreement to provide ‘clean fuel of future’

Paper recyclables may be the key

OW Staff Writer | 5/22/2020, midnight

An energy company planning to produce the clean fuel of the future has reached an agreement with Lancaster officials. The Solena Group plans to make hydrogen by using plasma heating technology originally developed for NASA to disintegrate the city’s paper recyclables at temperatures as high as 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Solena’s process has no commercial track record, and the company has not yet secured financing to build its $55-million facility in Lancaster. Solena is one of many firms looking for ways to cheaply produce hydrogen without generating planet-warming gases in hopes that the clean-burning fuel will one day replace oil and gas for transportation or heating.

The company’s process, which uses so-called plasma torches, caught the attention of Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris. The city will expedite Solena’s permitting process and send the company its paper recyclables, rather than paying to dump them in a landfill. Some U.S. Cities have been sending recyclables to landfills since China stopped accepting  exported waste in 2018.

If the hydrogen plant doesn’t materialize or otherwise fails, there’s little downside for the city, Parris told The Los Angeles Times in an interview. The upside would be pioneering a technology that could dramatically cut emissions. Lancaster will own a small stake in the plant.

“If we continue producing energy as we have been, we’re not going to be here in 50 years,’’ Parris said, referring to the impacts of climate change. “I’m excited to see how well it works, and how quickly we can expand this through the nation.’’

Parris has made climate change his signature issue. He helped make Lancaster the first city in Southern California to ditch its privately owned electric utility and buy cleaner power for residents. He also convinced the Chinese automaker BYD to build an electric bus factory in Lancaster.

 As a trial lawyer, he is representing thousands of people suing Southern California Gas Co. over the alleged health impacts of the 2015 methane blowout at the company’s Aliso Canyon storage facility.

“Most of what we do is the first time it’s ever been done,’’ Parris said.

Solena Group’s chief executive, Robert Do, has been honing his waste-to-fuel technology for decades.

Do co-founded the company in the 1980s with Salvador Camacho, a former NASA engineer who helped the space agency develop a plasma heating technique that could generate temperatures high enough to simulate re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. The technology was critical to testing the heat shields that would protect the first Americans in space as they returned to Earth.

A 1994 NASA publication described plasma heating as “passing a strong electric current through a rarefied gas to create a plasma ionized gas that produces an intensely hot flame.’’ Camacho started a spinoff company utilizing the technology in 1971.