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The future of biogas is here now

Swindon pilot plant 2000

A waste-to-biofuel project led by Advanced Plasma Power (APP) and claimed to be the first of its kind in the world, scooped a grant of £5.4m from Ofgem’s Network Innovation Competition at the start of the month, complementing an £11m grant secured from the Department for Transport in September.

The project is being developed by a consortium of APP, National Grid, Wales & West Utilities, Progressive Energy and CNG Services. It will take post-recycling residue from local household waste and commercial and industrial (C&I) waste and convert it into biomethane using APP’s Gasplasma technology. The fuel produced will be used by local haulage firm Howard Tenens, as well as CNG Services, to power heavy goods vehicles (HGVs).

In addition to the £5.4m secured this month, £600,000 has also been contributed by National Grid, while APP shareholders committed to match the DfT funding – a requirement of the grant. All this will be used to construct a commercial-scale plant in Swindon, on the same site as APP’s existing pilot plant.

Rolf Stein, APP chief executive, explains that the funding allows the business to continue with work that started five years ago, and increase its plant size by about 10 times to commercial scale.

“It is all about taking those steps towards commercialisation,” he says. “At the moment it is an R&D facility, but with this [funding] it will be demonstrated at a commercial scale. That will then allow the technology to be rolled out in projects.

“It is principally about persuading banks and funders to fund the technology and projects, where they typically would not fund a first-ofa- kind commercial plant.”

About 80% of CO2 emissions are from transport and heating, so the project could help to reduce emissions from these sectors. Stein says: “A good solution to the problem is ‘greening the fuel’ – retaining the existing modes of transport, internal combustion engines, and using even more efficient conversion technologies such as fuel cells, for instance.”

The biofuels project will look at using a range of municipal solid waste (MSW) and a range of C&I waste but also some waste biomass such as agricultural residues. Stein explains: “The whole area of advanced and second generation biofuels is focused around waste biomass. The UK’s largest source of waste biomass is MSW and C&I waste – we don’t have a great deal of other biomass residues. There is some from agriculture but our principal source is waste.”

However, in terms of global application, he adds that there is plenty of agricultural waste that is suitable for gasification, such as bagasse, the by-product of sugar production.

Stein says the higher the organic content in the waste feedstock, the better for the process: “In an ideal world it would be 100% biomass. Obviously MSW isn’t 100% biomass as it contains plastics and other material so, typically, it is 50-60% biogenic content.”

Asked about the implications for its process of mandatory separate collections of food and other biowaste – put forward in the EU circular economy package unveiled on 2 December, where it is ‘technically, environmentally and economically practicable’ – and Stein says that much of this waste stream has already come out at source.

“Even with the high levels of recycling that we are seeing, approaching 50% in the UK and 65% in Belgium, there is still a good proportion of biogenic material in household waste because not everyone recycles as they should. It is also harder to do so in densely populated areas such as cities because people living in apartments do not want to have multiple bins to put the material in, so there is less compliance in densely populated areas. There is also packaging that isn’t suitable for dry recycling, such as contaminated food packaging.

“We are acutely aware that what we do not want to do is build, like they have done on the Continent, to overcapacity.”

Stein considers APP’s Gasplasma process to be a form of recycling. “It is ‘molecular recycling’, if you like, it reuses that [waste material], albeit turns it into different chemicals – we turn it into fuels – and the ash residue is turned into a [Plasmarok aggregate] product. So we see it as complementary to recycling.”

He adds that APP’s technology is not setting out to compete with anaerobic digestion, which has “a very important role to play”. Equally, it does not plan to look at using agricultural slurries or sewage sludge as inputs.

Once it has proven the process at commercial scale, Stein envisages that initial plants, whether in the UK or elsewhere in the world, would probably focus on waste contractors rather than risk-averse local authorities, “tier 1 companies that have long-term contracts with either municipalities or are sufficiently confident of their long-term supply of C&I waste”.

He adds: “The interesting thing about [what] we are doing is that it is also attracting a different spectrum of customer. So we are seeing interest from industrial gases companies, chemical companies, petrochemical companies, oil companies – people who are engaged in the fuel supply chain. That has opened up a whole new universe of customer.

“Yes, the waste will still need to be contracted, so someone will need to supply it, and these sorts of companies do not typically get involved in the collection or supply of waste. But they will provide a good covenant to a contracting waste company. They will take the risk, so it is less of a risk to the waste company.”

Once the technology is well established, Stein says APP would look to bid for long-term council contracts as a technology solution. This could be in partnership with a contractor, such as a Costain or AmeyCespa, for example, in the same way that energy-from-waste plants are currently built.

“In all likelihood that is probably more of the end game,” he adds. “The first project won’t be backed by a municipal contract – it is just the way procurement happens.”

The immediate focus is, of course, on demonstrating its technology at commercial scale, which the recent grant wins will enable it to do. At the moment APP is going through planning and permitting, and it expects these to be in place in the first quarter of 2016, with construction starting mid-summer, operations starting towards the end of 2017 and the biofuels plant generating “full tilt” in 2018.

Feedstock for the plant, from an unnamed “local source”, will actually be a pre-treated refuse-derived fuel because the Swindon site does not have the space to include a MRF.

In terms of outputs, APP has looked at the range from its production and favours the creation of substitute natural gas (SNG), which has the same composition as natural gas but is produced from waste biomass. The reason is that it can be interchanged with natural gas, requiring no upgrade of infrastructure or investment by the end user.

Stein explains: “And we have a great asset in the National Grid to distribute this fuel to where it is needed. It is a fuel that can be used for heating in the home and, increasingly, it is a fuel used in transport.”

As well as the biofuels plant to be constructed, APP is currently commissioning a pilot plant at the same site to prove that it can make this substitute natural gas and produce a bioSNG that is the same composition as natural gas and can go into the grid.

The APP gasplasma process is essentially designed to replace incineration. Stein says: “It needs to overcome the technology adoption hurdles that any new technology does. But once it has done that, costs will fall rapidly, in particular funding costs, and people will get comfortable with the risk. And certainly in the short to medium term I can see us achieving parity with the current price of natural gas. So we are not building a technology or business around subsidy.

“Absolutely, we are setting out to provide a more economic solution but also a better environmental solution – that is challenging but we think we have cracked it. But it needs to become established and there is a well understood adoption hurdle that exists.”

Stein foresees the company eventually winning contracts on being able to charge lower gate fees or a plant incorporating its technology being fundable – “and therefore we’d win contracts ultimately on the basis of lower gate fees, so it will bring down waste disposal costs” – or it could work by attracting more investment because the returns are better.

“So even if we matched gate fees but the environmental benefits were to sell the technology to a municipal authority, for instance, then the investors would choose this sort of approach over an incineration approach because the returns would be better.”

He envisages that local authorities may become involved in such schemes on the waste input side and perhaps take heat from the process, which would be suited to district heating. But he believes that oil, gas and petrochemical companies will want to own such facilities in order to own the output to sell.

Future plants might be independently financed, so that a waste contractor contracts on the input side, oil and gas companies or end users contract on the output side and a third party comes in to fund it. Or they might take on a classic merchant facility model where financial investors own it, waste is contracted through one or more waste companies, and the output is contracted with a fuels company, and it runs for 25 years.

“We are not revolutionising the business model in any way – it is a tried, tested and established model – except to the extent that we are producing outputs that have opened up a new universe of customer,” Stein says. “There is a much wider spectrum of people interested in these applications – a lot of them are already world experts in gasification, but typically using coal. Coal is gasified all over the world to produce SNG or liquid fuels, but it is a fossil source.

“What they have done less of is biomass and waste gasification, which has its own inherent problems because it is hetrogenous, it has contaminants. It is a more difficult material.”

And by creating a process that turns this ‘difficult’ waste material into a resource, APP hopes to help shape the future of renewable fuels, heat and power – both in the UK and further afield.

APP’S Gasplasma Process: Maximising efficiency

The process uses scalable technology. It is modular: much is fabricated off-site and housed in a standard industrial unit, making for a swifter build. The plants are designed to be located close to towns and small cities, or on industrial estates, to reduce waste miles and enable potential use of the heat.

APP’s Gasplasma process uses a conventional gasifier. But its innovation, developed by sister company Tetronics, was to put a gasifier upstream of the plasma converter, creating a two-stage process. APP set out to create a process that would produce a gas clean enough to generate electricity more efficiently – it wanted to create gas to use directly in a gas turbine or gas engine.

Its two-stage process means the gasifier produces a crude gas which is laden with tars and flyash, and the plasma converter then acts as a cleaning tool to break down the tars into a clean gas, trap the flyash and melt it. Its two outputs are a clean syngas and the flyash, which is melted into a Plasmarok aggregate product.

The company’s work on biofuels involves taking the syngas, changing the gas composition ratio slightly, and using catalytic conversion to convert the syngas into methane and syncrude, which can then be cracked into various liquid fuels.

The future of biogas is here now

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