Game-changing products usually get going only with the twin backing of the right market conditions and favourable Government policies. Renovare Fuels is hoping that its innovation – which is being billed as a cost-effective way of producing liquid diesel from landfill or anaerobic digestion (AD) gas – will hit the mark on both counts.
Simply put, the company is developing a catalyst device that can be bolted on to existing biogas facilities to produce diesel that can be poured straight into vehicle tanks. The potential benefits are enormous: any company, farm or waste management firm with an AD or landfill gas site would be able to fuel their fleets without having to convert engines to run on compressed natural gas.
Renovare, which has its headquarters in London, is implementing a highly ambitious business plan that could see the technology up and running around the world within a few years. The company has won investment and backing from the Government to press ahead, with advanced approval from the taxman for £1.6m under the Enterprise Investment Scheme. It is also speaking to the UK’s leading waste operators and utility companies.
Devin Walker is Renovare’s chief technical officer and one of the inventors of the catalytic process. He is also chief executive of the US company that holds the master rights for the technology. He says it is a scientist’s ‘duty’ to figure out what to do with waste streams.
“What makes a sustainable fuel is one that is competitive with petroleum,” he says. “Let’s face it – as much as we love the environment and as much as we can say we’re environmentally friendly, it’s the money that runs the show.
In the biofuel world, seeing is believing. When you see the liquid diesel come out, it’s a revelation
“The question is, how do you do that – and it comes down to feedstock. If your feedstock is negatively valued, you are not starting in the red and you’ve got some wriggle room to work with as far as operating expenses go. And that’s where waste comes into play.
“It is expensive to extract oil or process corn into ethanol. What else is more sustainable than waste? As long as there are human beings, there is always going to be waste generation.”
The business case for waste is clear, says Walker. He points to the US agricultural and waste industries which consume around 4.2 billion gallons of diesel fuel or about 7% of total national diesel consumption. “Theoretically, if you put this technology in all of the landfills and all the AD sites in the US, you’re now displacing that amount.”
Renovare’s progress to market
- Stage 1: the concept has already been scientifically proven with a working pilot
- Stage 2: after producing fuel, the concept is now being scaled up
- Stage 3: product and fuel to be launched commercially
Walker’s catalysts have been proven to work at a landfill gas site in Florida, and the resulting biodiesel was used directly in existing vehicles. Landfill gas, says Walker, is harder than AD gas to convert because it is usually around 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide; AD is typically 60% methane.
A pilot facility is now being constructed in the US. When it is up and running in July, it is expected to be able to take 1cu m a minute of biogas and produce 500 litres a day of diesel.
“This will produce enough per day to do all the engine testing needed,” says Walker. “You want the engine manufacturer warranties to be honoured and for the fuel to pass all the specs.
“We are also trying to prove the robustness of the process. It’s a transportable pilot, so we are going to go to multiple facilities – landfills, wastewater treatment facilities, AD facilities – and in doing so you take the risk away.
“In the biofuel world, seeing is believing. A lot of people have been burned on ethanol and solar, a lot of promises were made and a lot were broken. But when you see the liquid diesel come out, it’s a revelation.”
Renovare is aiming to construct its first commercial plant in 2018. In order to be profitable, it will need to process at least 400cu m of gas per hour. This would allow “fairly small” AD sites to benefit.
“Being able to take the technology into a modular farm-scale type of application, it opens up a lot of doors,” says Walker. “Small-scale biogas to fuels has been a challenge in the industry for many years. And that’s what we’re overcoming – it’s a huge breakthrough.”
Matthew Stone is chairman of the UK company and an ‘early stage’ investor in the US. He is on board to get things going in Europe and beyond as soon as the pilot scheme proves the technology’s worth.
He says there were a number of clear benefits of setting up in the UK, including its mature energy-from-waste market and the ongoing reduction AD feed-in tariffs. Conditions are ripe for an innovation that does not require subsidies. But perhaps the main driver has been the Government’s change in attitude to renewable transport fuel, which is now seen as key in reducing the UK’s carbon emissions.
We have exclusive rights to develop in south-east Asia – there are huge gas reserves in landfill just sitting there.
Converting AD gas into biodiesel is currently not as efficient as using it directly as compressed natural gas, and this means vehicles need to be converted if they are to use waste-derived transport fuel.
“The Government has a renewable fuel target but doesn’t know how to achieve it,” says Stone. “What they have said, quite categorically, is they need technology to take up the slack and fill the void between policy and budget. The industry must be self-sustaining, and all other solutions will have to be subsidised if they are to be scaled up.
“This technology bridges that gap immediately. You can be independently fiscally viable and use all your upstream apparatus, all the same AD processes. You simply bolt on to the end of it and, by changing the output, you transform the industry. This fuel can go directly into today’s vehicles, which is exciting.”
Stone is quick to play up the advantages for companies with integrated fleets that can refuel at their own facilities, and cites a “good payback period” and “massive savings per litre”. Some supermarket chains, for instance, deal with food waste and have their own transport fleets and fuelling stations. The appeal of Renovare’s technology is obvious.
The confidence Stone has is reflected in the company’s global strategy, and to open up new markets even while the pilot phase is ongoing.
“Concurrently, we have people who want to start building in Q4 this year,” he says. “As soon as the technology is ready, we can move forward fairly aggressively. We have exclusive rights to develop in south-east Asia – there are huge gas reserves in landfill just sitting there. We have people working in Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur on the equity side.
“Within five years I expect we will have dozens of sites constructed or under planning in and around the UK. We will expect to be partnering with some large utility companies and have our cornerstone commercial partners.
“We will certainly expect to be expanding into Europe – I had discussions with people from Sweden and Germany the other day. We are also perhaps looking at South Africa.”
diesel to gas
Making diesel from gas is possible using what is known as the Fischer-Tropsch catalyst. Velocys is using Fischer-Tropsch technology for commercial production in the US. It also has a research base in Oxford.
But the idea has not yet caught on in the UK. One problem cited by experts is that, under currently available methods, the process produces a wide range of liquid hydrocarbons which then have to be further separated by a refinery process in order to isolate the usable diesel fraction.
This reduces the efficiency of the process, meaning that using the gas directly in adapted vehicles is preferable.
What Devin Walker and his colleagues at the University of South Florida did was to devise a way to produce a greater proportion of the usable fraction. This cuts down on the post-processing treatment required or can even bypass it altogether.
The group patented an ‘egg-shell catalyst’, which is used along with the Fischer-Tropsch and other catalysts, to first produce syngas from landfill gas then transform that into liquid transport fuel. Unlike other methods, it also utilises CO2, which makes up a large proportion of biogas.