Generating power from waste

Gideon Theron isn’t losing any sleep over load shedding. (David Harrison)

Gideon Theron isn’t losing any sleep over load shedding. (David Harrison)

If the efforts of factory owner Gideon Theron are anything to go by, there are entrepreneurial ways around the power crisis, and it doesn’t have to be limited to light users of electricity.

The 57-year-old former auditor has built a system that turns throwaway plastic bags into fuel that he hopes will soon power his small hot-dip galvanising factory, ZA Galv, in Stikland, Cape Town. Theron has to keep 180 tonnes of zinc molten around the clock at about 430 degrees Celcius in a large electrical kettle.

Steel objects ranging from bolts to beams are dipped into the zinc to give them a protective layer. Were the liquid zinc ever to cool down to the point where it starts setting, it would take days to get it melted again, a disaster that a small factory such as ZA Galv would not be able to survive more than two or three times.

Yet Theron says he isn’t losing any sleep over load shedding. By covering the kettle, he can keep the zinc molten for about a day. Industrial generators can be hired to keep the kettle going during a serious blackout. So far, there has been no need for them. Rather, a far greater risk for Theron’s business is the steep rise in Eskom’s prices.

“Just in the last three years our electricity bill has doubled,” he says. Since price shocks in 2010, Theron has been searching for alternative sources of power and found a method of returning waste plastic back into the crude-oil-like state it came from. After two years of tinkering, Theron’s system already produces 3 000 litres of fuel a month from more than four tonnes of waste plastic.

He is currently testing the fuel — known as black diesel — on his trucks and hopes to scale production to power a generator large enough to free his galvanising operation from dependence on Eskom. His raw material is abundant throwaway plastic destined for landfills. The plastic is fed into a vessel called a reactor, in which it is heated in the absence of oxygen and turned into gas.

The condensate resembles the original crude oil from which plastic is made and can be refined into various types of fuel. Theron’s innovation has nothing to do with any technological or scien­tific breakthrough on his part. He has no engineering background and is not even a backyard tinkerer, he says.

He used information available on the internet and, with the knowledge and experience of his staff who maintain ZA Galv’s kettle, he put together a small prototype that he steadily scaled up as he got the system to work. As much as Theron’s case shows that the solution lies in entrepreneurial thinking, it also illustrates that the energy crisis is to a large extent the artificial results of regulations rather than a lack of resources.

Theron says he won’t contemplate selling the fuel that he produces at a fraction of the cost of paraffin or diesel. The red tape involved in arranging a license to produce fuel for sale is simply too daunting. The same goes for the sale of electricity, which he hopes to produce soon. Until the regulatory regime changes, he will produce for his own use only.

The best he can do meanwhile, he says, is to help any other small business owner who comes knocking for advice on escaping from the clutches of Eskom.

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