Sierra Energy Corp. received a $33 million vote of confidence in its technology that turns trash into clean energy, reducing methane-producing landfills while keeping the lights on.

Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures led a group that made the Series A investment round which will help Sierra develop and commercialize its proprietary technology called FastOx. The process injects oxygen into a blast furnace, starting a chemical reaction that breaks waste down to a molecular level. It creates a synthetic gas and enables the recovery of inorganic material as either non-leaching stone or molten metal.

“FastOx technology is not incineration,” Mike Hart, Sierra Energy’s CEO, told Karma. “We don’t burn trash, we superheat it by injecting oxygen into our gasifier, which reacts with the carbon in the waste. This chemical reaction causes our system to reach very high temperatures (over 4,000 degrees F) where waste breaks down at a molecular level.”

Sierra, founded in 2004, developed FastOx with the support of grants from the Department of Defense and the California Energy Commission. The company’s first commercial-scale demonstration facility is located at the U.S. Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County, California.

Breakthrough puts money into companies that develop innovative technologies to mitigate climate change. Backed by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Jack Ma, Breakthrough has committed more than $1 billion to support entrepreneurs building companies that can curb emissions from agriculture, buildings, electricity, manufacturing.

Cox Investment Holdings, Inc., BNP Paribas SA, Twynam Investments Pty. Ltd., Formica Ventures AB, and The March Fund I LP participated in the round. 

About a quarter of municipal solid waste in the U.S., Europe and Japan is recovered, and the rest is burned or dumped in landfills. Neither disposal is ideal: landfills release methane, a greenhouse gas can leach hazards into groundwater, while incineration releases harmful emissions and leaves ash for disposal. 

“There are no emissions in this process,” Hart said. “Since we rely on a chemical reaction we also don’t require any external energy to run the system. As long as you feed it waste, a portion of the energy we create can be used to power the oxygen separation system which is our principal energy requirement.”

Gasification is a significant advance over incineration. With gasification, the input waste isn’t fuel, but a feedstock for a chemical conversion process. A waste-to-energy incinerator  produces heat and energy, while the synthetic gas produced by gasification can be turned into high value products such as diesel and chemicals.

Sierra Energy isn’t the only company making strides in this area. LanzaTech and Aries Clean Energy have developed gasification systems that primarily use industrial and biomass waste. 

“Sierra Energy is focused today on systems at around the 50-ton per-day size because we are seeing tremendous demand from small communities that are facing growing waste problems; globally this is a community of roughly 50,000 people, more if they recycle,” Hart said. “They are looking for a clean, reliable solution to convert their waste into something valuable. We will definitely look at scaling up to larger sizes in the near future.”