Plasco’s tomorrow man
The company’s chief scientist is already thinking about the company’s next breakthrough
By David Reevely, The Ottawa Citizen January 9, 2012
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Andreas Tsangaris is the chief scientist at Plasco Energy, which has just won a contract from the City of Ottawa, to convert garbage to energy using the company’s unique plasma gasification process. He is sitting beside a Galileo Thermometer he has in his office.
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — One of the people least affected by the landmark deal Plasco Energy Group has reached with the City of Ottawa is the company’s chief scientist and longest-serving employee.
For the company, the deal is huge, worth $182 million over 20 years. More, actually, figuring in inflation and the potential for another 20 years of extensions. In its first major commercial deal, the Ottawa-based company is to take 300 tonnes a day of the city’s residential garbage and run it through Plasco’s “plasma gasification” process to turn it into electricity, water, and a glassy leftover slag.
“It’s exciting that we are at the last step, or one of the last steps, of this process,” Andreas Tsangaris says. But really, his work is done, except for final fine-tuning on the demonstration project that’s to be the template for a multi-unit commercial plant. “There is no more research that will be done for this version. … The phases are three, four, five years.”
Soft-spoken and Greek-accented, with a salt-and-pepper goatee, Tsangaris occupies an interior office on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in Kanata. Cubicles for his seven staff are just outside his door, closer to the view of the Alcatel-Lucent complex a couple of blocks away. The decorations are modest: a gilded map (from the Bombay Company), a poster of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (from the Louvre), a Galilean thermometer that tells the temperature with buoyant bulbs of coloured liquid (from someplace Tsangaris can’t remember). It’s small and uncluttered. A place to work.
Tsangaris is a Greek Cypriot by birth, an Ottawan by choice and chance. The youngest of six children, the 56-year-old graduated from an English-language school that gave him a British-standard diploma.
“I was going toward studying in Britain,” he says. And then the Turks invaded and put that out of reach of his family’s finances.
But a scholarship from the Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship Association sent him to Carleton University in 1976.
“They told me where I would go, and I said, ‘all right.’” He earned two engineering degrees.
Plasco has been in its Innovation Drive quarters for about four years, a time that has coincided with its increasing velocity toward the Ottawa deal. But it’s far from a startup: the company and its predecessors have worked in Ottawa since the 1970s, seeking commercial uses for plasma technology that its long-ago founder, Terry Grinnell, first saw as a military officer on an exchange with NASA.
Super-hot torches were used to test heat shields for space shuttles and could run for seven to 10 minutes, the same length of time a shuttle spent re-entering the earth’s atmosphere; the company’s first challenge was inventing torches that could run longer. It set up in Ottawa to be close to the federal science establishment.
Tsangaris joined the company, then called Resorption Canada, as employee No. 1. His master’s thesis at Carleton was relevant to the company’s research and a professor put him in touch. “We were sort of looking for each other.”
Since then, it’s been a long, slow mission of developing the plasma technology and finding uses for it — funded by this or that program, benefiting from this or that partnership, as government policy and private industry’s interests changed. Tsangaris’ early work focused on the “energy balance” of the process, working out how much energy had to be run through waste of various kinds in order to break it down, and how much energy could be extracted from the waste’s components. His name is on two dozen patents.
“The idea, initially, was to produce what we used,” he says, to make the process run on the energy it generated. That meant refining (and refining, and refining) to minimize the use of the high-power plasma torches and maximize the energy captured.
“In the 1980s, the main focus was the environment,” he says. “There was not much emphasis, for the world, on recovering waste because the projections for energy from sources like nuclear were so large.”
And nobody was thinking much about running out of room in landfills. Hazardous waste — PCBs, heavy metals, poisons of all kinds — was a problem in vogue and plasma technology was seen as a way of solving it, but the company also worked on hospital waste and regular garbage. Residential waste is such a hodgepodge that if you can devise a gasification process that works on it, that process will work on almost anything.
And that, Tsangaris says, is Plasco’s major scientific achievement. It’s easy to burn garbage to heat water to make steam to turn a turbine to make electricity.
“Boilers and steam turbines are very, very forgiving,” he says, “but much less efficient.”
Plasco’s trick is to break down garbage’s complex molecules into simple elements and then recombine them into its famous “syngas,” which is burned in engines to directly generate electricity.
“Gas engines are temperamental,” Tsangaris says. “Once they are turned to a certain level, they need to be fed the fuel they’re expecting.”
It takes a sophisticated control system to make sure that no matter what random crud is dropped into one end of Plasco’s system, the same quality of gas comes out the other.
Like all the early Plasco team, who worked partly for cash and partly for equity, Tsangaris owns a piece of the company. He won’t say how much, but considering the hundreds of millions of dollars the company has raised from investors, it can’t be large.
“The way we all see it is, it’s better to have a small piece of a big, safe pie than a large piece of a small pie that might not be there,” he says.
The outside investment comes, in large part, from the work of Rod Bryden, the former Systemhouse and Ottawa Senators boss who came to head Plasco in 2005.
People who labour away on a technology for decades before a swashbuckler like Bryden arrives to take over might chafe. Tsangaris says he doesn’t: Bryden’s arrival was exciting, he says.
“You can go to war with him and you know he’s a good leader,” Tsangaris says.
Bryden brought financial acumen, corporate contacts and a feel for the market.
“I was an engineer and I knew I could make it work,” Tsangaris says. “I could talk about it, but I couldn’t sell it. … To take it to its full potential needed somebody like Rod Bryden.”
Bryden oriented the company for commercial success, Tsangaris says. Plasco could still apply itself to disposing of hazardous waste, for instance, and that’s potentially an extremely lucrative market, but it’s much less stable. Municipal garbage might make less money by the tonne, but it can produce steady long-term contracts like the one with Ottawa.
He is not bothered, he says, by the people who’ve said that Bryden is a snake-oil merchant and Plasco’s process is unproven at best, hocus-pocus at worst.
“I feel that they are wrong. I cannot be angry. There are people who will believe what they will believe. We have the data to prove it.”
His R&D team will support the new commercial plant however they’re needed, he says, but their main job is to look ahead to Plasco’s “generation-two technologies,” processes and techniques that aren’t protected by patents yet. They’re physically separated in Plasco’s office from the people working on current projects so that they won’t, as engineers do, chat about interesting problems they’re working on and risk even an innocent leak.
The next generation occupies Tsangaris’s thoughts at night, when he goes home to his wife and two sons at their home near Hogs Back. At bedtime, he says, he doesn’t read or count sheep. To take his mind off today, he thinks about tomorrow.
“My job is to bring new things to the company. Not all of them will be things that will end up being useful, though of course that’s the intention. But always to be thinking ahead.
“During the relaxation time, that’s when you can let your mind go.”
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