“Solving two big problems at once” is how Agilyx co-founder and president, Chris Ulum, describes his company’s technology that converts difficult-to-recycle plastic into synthetic crude oil to make fuel for cars and trucks.
The Portland, Oregon-based company is now working with customers in the waste and recycling industries to handle the 26 million tons of plastic that ends up in US landfills or incinerators each year, rather than being recycled.
“It’s not that the plastic is impossible to recycle, but it can’t be done economically,” says Ulum. This is because the waste plastic is either commingled (multiple types of plastic in a single item) or contaminated (with things like food, dirt, paper or oil), which adds time and cost for sorting, separating or cleaning. The company estimates that 77% of the plastic disposed each year in the US falls into this category.
The Agilyx technology uses a chemical process that heats the waste plastic to break it down into short-chain hydrocarbons and ultimately synthetic crude oil, which can be refined together with fossil crude for transportation fuel. What’s unique about the Agilyx process is the way its system delivers heat to the plastic and the continuous batch process that moves the product along a series of four vessels, says Ulum. He notes the company now holds 5 patents for their technology with several others pending. On average, about 10 pounds of waste plastic can be converted to one gallon of synthetic crude oil with the Agilyx process. Their base system can convert up to 10 tons of plastic per day.
Ulum says Agilyx is now working on four projects with three clients in the US. One system is already operating commercially and he expects the others will be online early next year. The company is also talking with potential customers in Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East. Average deal size will range from $10m to $15m, he expects. The modular system design can scale depending on the customer’s needs. With the revenues generated from the sale of synthetic crude, customers can recoup their investment in 3.5 to 4.5 years, according to company estimates.
Agilyx will install its systems on the customer’s premises, where the waste plastic material is aggregated everyday. Besides providing the technology, Agilyx will build relationships and negotiate contracts with the refiners to ensure there is a market for the oil produced and for this work, it takes a small share of the ongoing revenues.
Ulum co-founded the company in 2006 with Kevin DeWhitt, who now serves as the chief technology officer. Ulum knew he was on the right track after a discussion with his ten-year-old daughter.
“When I explained to her the problem of all this waste plastic and how we were going to make it into a valuable product, she got it immediately and said ‘Dad, that’s really cool,’” he says.
This intuitive appeal has also caught the attention of some very large strategic partners and investors for Agilyx, including Waste Management Inc., the largest waste processing company in the US, and the French multinational Total S.A, one of world’s largest oil and gas companies.