December 5, 2023

Trash Into Gas, Efficiently? An Army Test May Tell

But big drawbacks have prevented the wholesale adoption of trash-to-gas technology in the United States: incineration is polluting, and the capital costs of new plants are enormous. Gasification systems can expend a tremendous amount of energy to produce a tiny amount of electricity. Up to this point, it hasn’t seemed worth the trouble.

Mike Hart thinks that he has solved those problems. In a former Air Force hangar outside Sacramento, his company, Sierra Energy, has spent the last several years testing a waste-to-energy system called the FastOx Pathfinder. The centerpiece, a waste gasifier that’s about the size of a shower stall, is essentially a modified blast furnace. A chemical reaction inside the gasifier heats any kind of trash — whether banana peels, used syringes, old iPods, even raw sewage — to extreme temperatures without combustion. The output includes hydrogen and synthetic natural gas that can be burned to generate electricity or made into ethanol or diesel fuel. The FastOx is now being prepared for delivery to Sierra Energy’s first customer: the United States Army.

Ethanol has long been promoted as an alternative fuel that increases energy independence, and federal law requires the use of greater amounts of it. But most ethanol in this country is produced from corn or soybeans, and many people worry that the mandate is pushing up food prices. Ethanol produced from trash — or agricultural waste, as others are trying — would allay such concerns.

Ineos Bio, a Florida company, announced last month that it had produced ethanol from gasified wood waste, using a method that it expects to be commercially viable, and KiOR Inc. will make one million to two million gallons of diesel and gasoline this year from wood waste at its plant in Columbus, Miss., according to Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association. Mr. Hart said Sierra Energy’s technology should be complementary with the Florida company’s; the FastOx turns all municipal waste, not just wood scraps, into a gas that Ineos Bio could then transform into ethanol.

The FastOx gasifier is the brainchild of two former engineers at Kaiser Steel, patented by the grandson of one of them and commercialized by Mr. Hart. “It’s a modular system that can be dropped into any area,” Mr. Hart said, “using waste where it’s produced to make electricity where it’s used.” Once it’s off the ground, he said, “garbage will be a commodity.”  

From concept to construction, the story of the FastOx is of one fortuitous accident after another. And while Sierra Energy has not yet proved to be a successful company — it will be a long while before your garbage is shoveled into a FastOx — its system has become the first waste-to-energy technology acquired by the Defense Department, which paid $3 million for it through an environmental technology program. (The California Energy Commission, which supports renewable energy development in the state, also gave Sierra $5 million, to cover the portion of Sierra’s costs that the Pentagon couldn’t.)

The military is looking for ways to reduce its oil consumption, and to make it easier to supply the front lines with the fuel it uses in all its vehicles and generators. “These days, the supply lines are in the battlefield,” said Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs. “And we consume a lot of fuel, which makes us a big target.”

MIKE HART got into the energy business by way of a train. In 1993, he bought the Sierra Railroad, a small freight and tourism line in Northern California. During the California blackouts of 2001, he had an idea: “As the lights were going out, I realized every one of my locomotives creates 2.1 megawatts of electricity,” he said — enough to power many hundred homes. “It’s a rolling generator, and inexpensive.”

The train-as-power-generator idea never really left the station, but it got Mr. Hart thinking about alternative energy. Then, as part of a settlement after a fuel spill from one of his trains, he promised to convert his trains to nonpolluting biodiesel.

Biodiesel, however, proved hard to find, and Mr. Hart started looking for new ways to source it. In 2002, he was asked to judge an annual business plan competition called the Big Bang, at the University of California, Davis. That’s where he met Chris Kasten.

Mr. Kasten came to the competition with an idea to use a modified blast furnace to turn waste into fuel. His grandfather, Bruce Claflin, a retired chief industrial engineer at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, Calif., had given him the idea.

Kaiser used blast furnaces to make steel, and Mr. Claflin and a colleague, John Jasbinsek, were tasked with finding “a way to make the blast furnace more efficient and less polluting,” said Mr. Jasbinsek, who is now 86.

Like all blast furnaces, Kaiser’s emitted a flue gas out of the top. It occurred to Mr. Clafin and Mr. Jasbinsek that this gas might have value. The two came up with the idea of injecting oxygen, instead of the atmospheric air that steel makers had always used, to create the chemical reaction that heats the inside of the furnace. This would cut pollution while raising the energy content of the flue gas — in essence, giving the steel maker a second product. But pure oxygen made the system too hot, so they added steam. This gave the furnace a third product: hydrogen, which can be used to produce electricity in fuel cells.

After Kaiser decided to close the Fontana plant in 1983, workers were told to toss all demolition debris into the blast furnace. It was then that Mr. Jasbinsek and Mr. Claflin realized that the furnace could take garbage, too. “No matter what they put in, the furnace melted and gasified it,” Mr. Kasten said. This meant a potential fourth revenue stream — from taking municipal waste that would otherwise go to landfills.

When Kaiser wasn’t interested, Mr. Jasbinsek recalled, “we took the idea to other steel companies, too.” But “nobody gave a damn!” he said. “Now there are hardly any steel companies left in the U.S.”

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Coming Soon: A Breakout for Black Filmmakers

After years of complaint and self-criticism about the shortage of prominent movies by and about black Americans, film companies are poised to release an extraordinary cluster of them across an array of genres in the last five months of 2013.

At least 10 new films will be released, including several awards contenders, from both independent and major distributors, like the Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight and Universal Pictures.

Even some of those who made this year’s movies have been caught by surprise.

“You tell me!” said the director and screenwriter Lee Daniels, when asked how so many black-driven films had materialized at once. His historical drama “The Butler” — based on a real-life White House butler who served eight presidents — is to be released by Weinstein on Aug. 16.

“I’m working in my own bubble, I come up for air, and there they are,” Mr. Daniels said.

Black filmmakers say the wave of 2013 releases was built in large part on the creativity that has flourished on the independent-film circuit, which has become a laboratory of sorts for more prominent African-American-themed productions. Writers and directors have been sharpening their skills on indie films the last several years while waiting for big distributors to regain interest.

Studio executives also say there is a growing audience with more multicultural tastes that gives these films a broader appeal. “There’s a genre audience out there, but it’s no longer quite so segregated,” said Stephen Gilula, a president of Fox Searchlight. African-American-themed films, when they do find mainstream distributors, are often playing at more theaters in more cities than in the past, Mr. Gilula said.

In addition, a cohort of black cultural figures, including directors, actors, writers and playwrights, has fostered a shared spirit that has sustained black filmmakers, even when studios were paying less attention.

“I would have to liken this to the Harlem Renaissance,” said David E. Talbert, who wrote and directed “Baggage Claim,” a romance that is based on his novel of the same title and will be released in September.

Mr. Talbert, also a playwright, compared the support system among black filmmakers to the time when black musicians and writers buoyed one another in the early 20th century.

The 2013 releases are also notable for their range. While black-themed films have never disappeared, the interest of distributors has waned when the movies stuck to more singular genres like urban dramas, about, say, the problems of a drug culture or family dysfunction. Now there is a varied mix that has some filmmakers talking about a cultural rebirth.

“It’s what I always wished for,” said Kasi Lemmons, who directed “Black Nativity,” a musical with a libretto by Langston Hughes, scheduled for release in November.

“I always thought it would be an indicator of success, when we had a full spectrum of films,” Ms. Lemmons added.

As recently as 2010, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which was directed by Mr. Daniels, provoked worried debate about the status of African-American cinema when it stood out as the only movie by a black director ever to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.

Last year Hollywood’s principal companies released only one prominent film from a black director with a black cast, “Sparkle,” from Sony Pictures and the filmmaker Salim Akil, in the July-to-December stretch. (Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere” was released in a small number of theaters in October, while Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” was similarly released by a small New York-based independent company, Variance Films, in August.)

But a substantial new wave will arrive on July 3 with Lionsgate’s release of a documentary, “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain,” from two black directors, Leslie Small and Tim Story. Other films include “Fruitvale Station,” directed by Ryan Coogler, in July; “The Butler,” by Mr. Daniels, and Mr. Talbert’s “Baggage Claim,” in August; and “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas,” from Lionsgate, on Dec. 13.

Over all, movies that feature a predominantly black cast in a specifically African-American story have been caught in a squeeze between foreign markets, where those films often come up short, and demographic pressures at home.

This year the Motion Picture Association of America in its annual statistical survey said that African-Americans, who make up about 12 percent of the population, account for about 11 percent of North American movie ticket sales. By contrast, the association noted, Hispanics, who make up 17 percent of the population, account for 26 percent.

The Help,” released in 2011, which had a white director, Tate Taylor, and both black and white stars, nonetheless turned an African-American story about black maids in the Jim Crow era into a summer blockbuster. It joined successes like “Think Like a Man,” “Jumping the Broom” and a string of Tyler Perry films to give executives new confidence in the potential of movies built around black themes.

But executives are also discovering, or rediscovering, filmmakers who have attracted notice, and some awards, with small, independent films.

“The conversation within the black film community is about this new energy that was jump-started by the indie movement,” said Ms. DuVernay, who in 2011 started the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement to issue black-made films that were being overlooked by commercial distributors.

She said fresh studio attention to indie-bred filmmakers recalls an earlier era, when Spike Lee, with “She’s Gotta Have It,” and Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, with “House Party,” parlayed outsider hits into studio careers.

(Mr. Lee’s latest, the thriller “Oldboy,” will be released by FilmDistrict in October, with Josh Brolin in the lead role; Mr. Lee is also an executive producer of “The Best Man Holiday,” due in November, whose writer and director, Malcolm D. Lee, is his cousin.)

In this year’s crop, several films have independent roots: “Big Words,” directed by Neil Drumming and released by Ms. DuVernay’s company, about the members of a once-hot hip-hop group confronting midlife, and both “Fruitvale Station” and “Mother of George,” a pair of Sundance darlings rooted in urban black experience.

“These are individually generated films,” said Forest Whitaker, who was a producer of “Fruitvale Station,” and played roles in “The Butler” and “Black Nativity.” In a recent interview Mr. Whitaker said Mr. Coogler, for instance, wrote “Fruitvale Station,” based on the killing of a young black man at an Oakland, Calif., transit station, while still a student at the University of Southern California, and he directed it with backing from independent financiers, including one from China.

“Twelve Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, comes from deeper within Hollywood. Its backers include New Regency Pictures and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, and it is based on a script by both Mr. McQueen, whose “Shame” was distributed in 2011 by Fox Searchlight, and John Ridley, whose extensive credits reach back to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” television series.

The film follows Solomon Northup, a free black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the lead, is supported by Mr. Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and others, raising the odds in favor of an audience hit, though the memoir it’s based on is not widely known.

Similarly, Mr. Daniels’s drama, in which Mr. Whitaker plays a White House butler based on the real-life Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents through Ronald Reagan, is cast with an eye toward an audience as broad as that of “The Help.” Mr. Whitaker is joined in the cast by Oprah Winfrey, along with John Cusack, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, among others.

Still, Mr. Daniels said, it is the sudden presence of other black directors that has him feeling less isolated.

“That is so comforting,” he said. “I’m sure other filmmakers feel the same way.”

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Barnes & Noble Weighs Its Nook Losses

Barnes Noble, the nation’s largest book chain, warned that when it reports fiscal 2013 third-quarter results on Thursday, losses in its Nook Media division — which includes sales of e-books and devices — will be greater than the year before and that the unit’s revenue for all of fiscal 2013 would be far below projections it gave of $3 billion.

The problem was not so much the extent of the losses, but what the losses might signal: that the digital approach that Barnes Noble has been heavily investing in as its future for the last several years has essentially run its course.

A person familiar with Barnes Nobles’s strategy acknowledged that this quarter, which includes holiday sales, has caused executives to realize the company must move away from its program to engineer and build its own devices and focus more on licensing its content to other device makers.

“They are not completely getting out of the hardware business, but they are going to lean a lot more on the comprehensive digital catalog of content,” said this person, who asked not to be identified discussing corporate strategy.

On Thursday, the person said, the company will emphasize its commitment to intensify partnerships with other tablet producers like Microsoft and Samsung to make deals for content that it controls.

If Barnes Noble does indeed pull back from building tablets, it would be a 180-degree shift for a company that as late as last year was promoting the Nook as its future. “Had we not launched devices and spent the money we invested in the Nook, investors and analysts would have said, ’Barnes Noble is crazy, and they’re going to go away,’ ” William Lynch, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview last January.

Since 2009, when Barnes Noble first decided to invest in building the device, its financial commitment to the division has been substantial. (The company does not disclose exact figures.) At the beginning of 2012, that bet seemed to be paying off and the digital future seemed hopeful.

In May, Microsoft decided to give a cash infusion to the product by pledging more than $600 million to Nook Media. In December, the British textbook publisher Pearson bought a 5 percent stake in the unit for nearly $90 million.

Going into the 2012 Christmas season, the Nook HD, Barnes Noble’s entrant into the 7-inch and 9-inch tablet market, was winning rave reviews from technology critics who praised its high-quality screen. Editors at CNET called it “a fantastic tablet value” and David Pogue in The New York Times told readers choosing between the Nook HD and Kindle Fire that the Nook “is the one to get.”

But while tablet sales exploded over the Christmas season, Barnes Noble was not a beneficiary. Buyers preferred Apple devices by a long mile but then went on to buy Samsung, Amazon and Google products before those of Barnes Noble, according to market analysis by Forrester Research.

“In many ways it is a great product,” Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester, said of the Nook tablet. “It was a failure of brand, not product.

“The Barnes Noble brand is just very small,” she added. “It has done a great job at engaging its existing customers but failed to expand their footprint beyond that.”

Others pointed out that even if the Nook itself was a nice device, its offerings were not as rich as that of its rivals. Shaw Wu, a senior analyst at Sterne Agee, a midsize investment bank in San Francisco, said, “It is a very tough space. It is highly competitive, and extras like the depth of apps are very important. But it requires funding and a lot of attention, and Barnes Noble is competing against companies like Apple and Google, which literally have unlimited resources.”

Horace Dediu, an independent analyst based in Finland who focuses on the mobile industry, said that the difference in quality among the products was so small as to be increasingly irrelevant.

“We’ve moved beyond a game of specs,” he said. “Now it is about your business model, about distribution and economics of scale.”

He said that while the cellphone business used to have numerous competitors, it now has only two companies that are really profitable: Apple and Samsung. He said he expected a similar consolidation in the tablet market, with companies like Barnes Noble “maybe falling off the map.”

There is no immediate danger to the book retailer, which has some 677 stores nationwide. The company has said it plans to close about 15 unprofitable stores a year and replace them at a much slower rate. It also still holds roughly one quarter of the digital sales of books and more of magazines.

Still, the threat is large enough that Barnes Noble executives are working hard to determine a strategy that focuses on core strengths like content distribution. Its content is its “crown jewel,” said the person familiar with the company’s strategy, “and where the profitable income stream lies.”

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U.S. Recovery Slowly Gained Speed in Late ’11, Data Show

The pace of growth was faster than in the third quarter, when gross domestic product expanded at an annual rate of 1.8 percent.

Even so, both  figures were below the average speed of economic expansion in the United States since World War II. Above-average growth in the quarter would have helped to make up for the destruction wrought by the Great Recession.

“At this rate, we’ll never reduce unemployment,” said Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. “The recovery has been postponed, again.”

Still, the 2.8 percent rate is likely to be seen by many as something of a relief, given that just last summer many economists were predicting the country would soon dip back into recession. Whether this modestly brisker pace of growth will continue is unclear, however.

One of the biggest drags on growth in the last quarter was government spending at the federal, state and local levels, according to the Commerce Department report. National defense spending fell a whopping 12.5 percent, for example. Strapped state and local governments are likely to continue cutting back in 2012, as they have done nearly every quarter for the last several years.

At the federal level, Congress has not yet decided whether to renew a temporary payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits past February, when both are scheduled to expire.

Consumer spending rose at an annual pace of 2 percent, slightly better than the 1.7 percent in the previous quarter. But there were signs that the increase in spending might have been driven by borrowing based on expected improvements in the economy and that consumers were starting to retrench again.

“It will be very hard for consumption growth this quarter to match what we saw last quarter,” said Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics. “Remember that with consumption at 70 percent of G.D.P., slower consumer spending growth can mean much slower G.D.P. growth.”

Among the more optimistic signs recently, many American companies have reported strong profits in recent months. In addition, new orders for manufactured durable goods, reported on Thursday, exceeded economists’ expectations in December by growing 3 percent.

And companies like General Electric and Lockheed Martin closed the year with record order backlogs, a sign that, at least for some businesses, demand is so strong that they cannot produce quickly enough. The backlogs portend solid manufacturing growth going forward, and suggest to some economists that the United States could weather the European sovereign debt crisis relatively unscathed after all.

On the other hand, so far in this recovery, corporate success has not necessarily benefited American workers and consumers. Today, the economy produces more than it did when the recession began in 2007, but it manages to do so with six million fewer jobs.

Companies seem reluctant to use their burgeoning profits to invest in new workers.

“Businesses have been holding much higher levels of cash than they have in past,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economist at RDQ Economics.

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DealBook: Sunoco to Sell Refineries

Sunoco announced on Tuesday that it was exiting the refining business, in its latest move to refocus the oil company on retail and logistics operations.

The company has been shifting its strategy over the last couple of years. It sold its chemicals group, and earlier this year spun off its metallurgical coal production business, SunCoke Energy, in an initial public offering.

Now, Sunoco plans to sell off its refineries, and the process is already under way for two facilities in Pennsylvania. If the assets are not sold, Sunoco said it would “idle the main processing units” in July 2012.

The company expects to incur an impairment charge of $1.9 billion to $2.2 billion as a result of these efforts. After the sale, Sunoco said it could record a $2 billion gain related to the liquidation of some inventories.

With a sale of its refineries, Sunoco will be mainly focused on retail sales and logistics. The company has 4,900 gas stations in 24 states.

“We have made progress in increasing the efficiency of our refineries over the last several years, but given the unacceptable financial performance of these assets, it is clear that it is in the best interests of shareholders to exit this business and focus on our profitable retail and logistics businesses which have higher returns, growth potential, and provide steady, ratable cash flow,” Lynn L. Elsenhans, Sunoco’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.

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Johnson & Johnson to Stop Making Heart Stents

Johnson and Johnson announced on Wednesday that it would stop manufacturing drug-coated heart stents by the end of the year, abandoning an intensely competitive $4 billion market after a series of setbacks for the company and rising concerns about the use of stents in some patients.

The company is expecting to take a $500 million to $600 million restructuring charge this quarter and to trim 900 to 1,000 jobs this year.

The announcement by J. J. and its subsidiary Cordis, long expected by some analysts because of a dwindling market share, opens up more sales possibilities for three competitors.

The use of heart stents is being challenged as unnecessary for some patients. Stents are tiny devices inserted through blood vessels to keep arteries open in the heart. But research in recent years has suggested that stents are overused by doctors and that drugs may be a cheaper, safer and more effective way for many patients to avoid heart attacks or strokes.

The emerging concerns, the recession and pricing pressures have caused a fall-off in stent sales. The worldwide market for coronary stents dropped to $4.2 billion last year, from $5.3 billion in 2006, according to the investment house Leerink Swann.

Cordis’s sales of drug-coated heart stents fell to $627 million globally last year, from $2.6 billion in 2006. By the end of the year, Cordis will stop manufacturing its Cypher stent — the first drug-coated stent to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2003 — and stop researching a new one called the Nevo stent, the company said in a statement Wednesday.

Seth Fischer, worldwide chairman of Cordis, said the decision was prompted by “changing dynamics” and price pressures in an increasingly competitive market.

“There’s no question that our market share has declined in the last several years as competitors have joined the market,” he said in a telephone interview. “We felt that we could turn our attention toward other potential areas that would enhance cardiovascular health for patients.”

Mr. Fischer also said J. J.’s losses in patent cases, including an appellate court decision last week, had a significant effect. “Unlicensed competition” has eroded its pricing, sales and market share, he said.

Cordis will cut 900 to 1,000 positions by closing its Cypher stent manufacturing facility in San Germán, Puerto Rico, and its Nevo stent plant in Cashel, Ireland, and trimming research, sales and marketing, a company spokeswoman, Sandra Pound, said in a telephone interview.

J. J., based in New Brunswick, N.J., has suffered a series of consumer product recalls largely because of manufacturing problems. The decision to get out of the stent market also appeared to hurt the company in the eyes of investors. The stock price dipped by 1.4 percent to $66.16 on Wednesday.

J. J.’s departure should help the market leaders, Boston Scientific and Medtronic, which are each introducing new drug-eluting stents in mid-2012, according to an investor note from Barclays Capital.

Boston Scientific stock rose 2.8 percent to $6.93, while Medtronic declined by nearly 1.25 percent, to $37.92. Abbott Laboratories, which also sells heart stents in the United States, held even in the stock market.

J. J. held about 15 percent of the worldwide market share in drug-eluting stents. Barclays said that share was expected to drop to 10 percent this year and 7 percent in 2012.

Leerink Swann, in an investor note, said J. J.’s withdrawal was long expected and would both help other stent-makers and help J. J. focus on more profitable areas.

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