Rohnert Park company wants microwaved plastics to power your truck fleet

Tell people, ‘Hold on! Don’t stop recycling that plastic yet,’” urged Sebastopol entrepreneur Brian Bauer during a recent interview. “People were promised years ago that they could recycle plastic, and now they’re being told they can’t, and they’re frustrated and they’re giving up…. when just now it’s starting to work.”

It’s starting to work, Bauer said, because Resynergi, the Rohnert Park company he co-founded in 2015, is making plastic reusable. At its research facility in Santa Rosa, Resynergi reports it is turning non-recycled plastics into cleaner fuels that are needed to transition to a green future.

The facility makes diesel that can go directly into trucks at wholesale market prices, and it can make that diesel with portable systems that emit up to 60% less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel extraction and refining, Bauer said.

The plant also makes naphtha, a kind of liquid that can be used to make plastic again, a true recycling. Bauer expects this to be of high interest in California, where Gov. Newsom and state legislators have said they aim to lead the world in clean recycling.

Some environmentalists complain that continuing to burn fuel doesn’t build a renewable future, but Bauer counters that the combustion engine is not going away soon and Resynergi fuels are a cleaner alternative to power pumped from the earth.

Critical to Resynergi’s advances is its work since 2018 with waste hauler Recology Sonoma Marin. In 2020 Resynergi located its research facility next to Recology in Santa Rosa, and Recology now delivers tons of non-recyclable plastic to the Resynergi plant.

“By working with Resynergi we’ve been able to explore a new use for plastic that would have otherwise been landfilled,” said Celia Furber, Waste Zero Manager for Recology Sonoma Marin. “As an example, there is a manufacturer in Sonoma County that has an excess of small plastic lids. Rather than landfilling that material, Recology Sonoma Marin hauls it to Resynergi for them to process.”

“It’s been a turning point for what we do,” Bauer said. “We’ve been able to run multiple weeks at a time, it’s a big proof point that this is a viable business for us.”

Several other companies also give Resynergi their non-recyclable plastic, and most pay Resynergi to take it, Bauer said. The amount they pay is confidential. Resynergi currently accepts plastics that display the numbers 2, 4, 5 or 6 inside a small triangle. A triangle stamped on plastic with numbers 1-7 identifies the resin content in the plastic.

The Resynergi facility has recently scaled up from a research plant to a pilot plant that can generate fuel 24/7, Bauer said. Soon he hopes to announce a new project and new financing that he believes will enable Resynergi to become profitable in less than two years.

Bauer, 57, founded Resynergi with Jason Tanne, now of Vancouver, Washington, nearly two decades after they worked together at Advanced Fiber Communications, a Petaluma leader in the telecommunications industry. Both were interested in doing something green, and they stayed in touch.

“I had always wanted to do something impactful in green energy. I studied it at Stanford,” said Bauer, whose degree was in mechanical engineering. Then one day Tanne suggested converting waste plastic to fuel.

“I said, ‘That’s it,'” Bauer said. “It was just so clear to me. Fuels are needed so badly, and plastic needs to be cleaned up, and there was such a clear profitable path because there’s value in fuels, which in turn fuels the motivation to more carefully collect and sort.” As governments clamp down on plastics, Bauer and Tanne saw opportunity.

So they launched Resynergi, named for “recycle” and the importance of “synergy,” and early-on made a decision they believe thrust them ahead of competitors.

They studied a number of research projects already underway, compared to what their own work was telling them, and recognized that Dr. Roger Ruan, a professor at the University of Minnesota who had been working on just such a challenge for 12 years, had developed an innovative process unlike what anyone else was doing, Bauer said. They brought him on board as their chief scientific officer.

“He is super prolific and fantastic to work with,” Bauer said.

Recycling plastic is not new, of course. Plastic can be ground up, decomposed with heat and chemicals and converted to other products. But Bauer said traditional plastic-to-fuel operations often use coal, propane or wood for heat and Resynergi’s patented technology is different. Resynergi uses microwaves to do the heating, which is superfast and can be targeted. Think about microwave ovens. They’re fast, and only the food gets hot. In a Resynergi reactor, the microwaves trigger a process where plastic is decomposed and its chemical composition changed without the issues raised by heating with coal, propane or wood, he said.