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Bio-Nylon Is The New Green: How One Company Is Fermenting A $10 Billion Market

In the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels, Genomatica announced the first commercial production of bio-based nylon. Companies that seize the economic and environmental benefits of biomanufacturing stand to lead the way, whether it’s fabrics or face creams.

When we think of biotechnology, it’s easy to think just about pharmaceuticals. Even the broader term ‘bioeconomy’ may only bring to mind things like agriculture, forestry, and food.

But the bioeconomy is best thought of as turning biomass into business, plants into products. What we call the bioeconomy today made up most of our economy before the 20th century, when petrochemistry and synthetic chemistry gave rise to a revolutionary material that became ubiquitous worldwide: plastics.

In the 21st century, consumers are increasingly demanding products that reflect their more sustainable values and lifestyles. Chemistry is giving way to synthetic biology, and engineered organisms—using the same kind of fermentation we use to make wine, bread, or kombucha—can now make the chemical building blocks for shoes, cars, and carpets.

There is just one question: Which producers will have the foresight to lead this biomanufacturing revolution?

Recently, a bioengineering company called Genomatica reached a milestone that epitomizes this shift from fossil fuels to biology. Genomatica announced it had made a ton of the chemical building block that industry relies on to make nylon-6—using a renewable fermentation approach.

Here’s why that matters.

Why does bio-nylon matter?

First, it’s an economic opportunity. The nylon industry is worth $10 billion globally. That’s a huge potential market to tap into. Nylon became famous in the 1940s as a textile fiber in stockings. Today, it is found in everything from clothes to packaging.

Second, it’s an environmental necessity. As with most plastic production today, nylon-6 usually starts with crude oil. In this case, the molecule caprolactam is refined from crude oil and made into nylon. Every year, the world makes five million tons of nylon-6, which results in an estimated 60 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Producing nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Manufacturing nylon also requires large amounts of water and energy, further contributing to environmental degradation and global warming.

Using a synthetic biology approach, Genomatica engineered microorganisms to ferment plant sugars to produce caprolactam, and therefore nylon, in a 100% renewable way. Christopher Schilling, CEO of Genomatica, thinks this is good for business and our planet.

“There’s this idea that in order to be sustainable, you’ve got to find some totally novel material,” said Schilling. But by producing the very same chemical precursor that industry would normally get from fossil fuels, he believes Genomatica can have a much bigger, more rapid impact on sustainability. “As this product continues to scale, and the economics become more obvious, companies will begin to ask themselves: why would we source it any other way?”

Name brands are going bio-based

Genomatica wants to deliver sustainable nylon to brands like H&M, Vaude, and Carvico via its partnership with Aquafil, one of the largest producers of nylon in the world. Aquafil’s ECONYL brand of nylon takes old fishing nets, textile scraps, and other forms of nylon waste and transforms them into new yarn that’s as good as virgin raw material. Aquafil sees this regeneration process as a new opportunity for the fashion and furniture industries, and a way to protect the environment.

“It was important to us to establish a real connection point with consumer brands,” said Schilling. As a technology innovator, Genomatica felt that the success of the product depended on being accepted at all points in the value chain. Aquafil was the best partner for that, “where we could share a great story that consumer brands could latch on to and ultimately champion.”

Schilling says that the initial one-ton production of the chemical precursor is a small but important step, and its next goal is to reach commercial-scale levels of 30,000-100,000 tons per year.

Bio-nylon’s sustainable forerunners

“One of the things that’s really differentiated Genomatica is our ability to scale, to know how to take something all the way from ideation to commercial realization,” says Schilling.

Nylon is Genomatica’s third big synthetic biology product to come to market, and its previous experience in this space is sure to help accelerate the transition from the lab bench to the marketplace.

Genomatica’s first big success was with 1,4-butanediol, known more colloquially as BDO. This chemical is used to make plastics, elastic fibers, and polyurethanes, and it’s found in everything from plastic bags to spandex. The world produces about 2.5 million metric tons of BDO every year, and at about US$2,000 per ton, the market is in the billions.

In 2012, Genomatica delivered a chemical engineering breakthrough by producing bio-based BDO with a cost-competitive fermentation process at a commercial scale. Bio-BDO is 100% bio-based and biodegradable, and can be found in athletic apparel, running shoes, electronics, and automotive applications.

A second big success came with a chemical named 1,3-butylene glycol. Few realize it, but many of our everyday personal care and beauty products are derived from crude oil. In early 2019, Genomatica announced the first commercial production of Brontide—its brand name of the chemical—made with natural plant-based sugars. As more and more of us strive to choose products that are in line with our personal values, those made with Brontide rather than fossil fuel derivatives offer consumers a choice that is kinder to the environment.

Taken together, there are now bio-based alternatives for the chemicals used to make everything from fuels to electronics, from shoes to cosmetics. It’s a reminder of just how dependent we are on petrochemicals in our everyday lives.

Are bio-based drop-in chemicals inevitable?

“On the performance side, our first goal is to make sure that the material delivers exactly the same performance features as you would get from conventionally or petroleum sourced nylon. That’s the same thing we did in BDO and butylene glycol,” explains Schilling. He adds, “When you have these large existing markets, you have to make sure you hit the spec to deliver the same quality.”

Bio-based alternatives can offer another advantage over their fossil-based cousins: in some cases, they perform better. With butylene glycol, for example, heavy metals are a catalyst used in processing the ingredient from crude oil. In the final product, trace amounts of heavy metals remain. But with biomanufacturing, no catalysts are needed and there’s no chemical processing, says Schilling. “There are also different purity levels that we’re able to hit very effectively,” he says.

The argument for sustainable, bio-based approaches to material precursors is a strong one. Through relatively simple fermentation processes, biology has shown time and again that it can make whatever we can pump out of the ground, offering precision, renewable production of key compounds. Bio-based caprolactam is another proof point.

The sticking point, as ever, is industry adoption. Industry leaders across the value chain need to seek out and support the scaling of sustainable and renewable bio-based components to speed their integration into a diverse array of end-products. Consumers want them, manufacturers can use them, and most importantly, the planet needs them.

Gene-Editing Algae Doubles Biofuel Output Potential – Another leap forward for sustainable biofuels

Scientists have created a strain of algae that produces twice as much lipid as its wild parent, a substance that can be processed into a biofuel.

By using a combination of gene editing tools, including the famed CRISPR-Cas9 technique, they identified and switched off genes that limited the production of lipids. Creating an alga that can pump out commercial amounts of sustainably obtained biofuels.

“We are focused on understanding how to maximize the efficiency of [lipid production] algae and at the same time maximise the amount of CO2 converted to lipids in the cells, which is the component processed into biodiesel,” Eric Moellering, lead researcher from company Synthetic Genomics Inc, told ScienceAlert.

Scientists have been trying to make the concept of using phototropic algae to produce bio-diesel a reality since the 1970s. In the past, it has been said that a new energy sector based on algal biofuels could guarantee transport fuel and food security far into the future.

Despite years of research, the best attempts until now have been limited to industrial strains which, although they have a really high lipid conversion rate, do not make sufficient amounts of lipid to make it commercially viable – limited by the fact it can’t grow very fast.

“Early in the [study] we posed the basic question, can we engineer an alga to produce more lipids while sustaining growth? This publication provides the proof of concept answer to that question is yes,” said Moellering.

In this new research, the team used CRISPR-Cas9, among other editing techniques, and identified 20 transition factors that regulated lipid production. By knocking out 18 of these, the team were able to double the lipid output compared to the non-modified algae.

But here’s the important bit: they were able to do so without stunting the alga’s growth rate. It grew at the same rate as the unmodified type.

The genetically modified algae produced up to 5 grams of lipid per metre per day, about twice as much as in the wild.

Another important metric is the total carbon to lipid conversion. This tells us how efficient the algae is at converting CO2 to lipids. In wild, unmodified alga the conversation rate is about 20 percent, but in the engineered alga it converted 40 to 55 percent of carbon to lipids.

It’s worth pointing out that this study was only performed at the laboratory scale but one of the researchers, Imad Ajjawi, also from Synthetic Genomics, told ScienceAlert that while they consider this a ‘proof of concept’, “they represent a significant milestone in establishing the foundation for a path that leads to eventual commercialisation of algal biofuels.”

Should this research graduate from the lab, bio-fuel production would no longer be reliant on sugars produced by land-grown crops like sugar cane and maize. Studies on the use of crop based biodiesel has shown that it could prove to be incredibly costly and damage our food security.

This research is another win for gene editing and the researchers have shown that new genetic editing tools sit at the centre of talking some of the world’s biggest problems.

“We have also developed the necessary genomic and genetic tools that will enable future breakthroughs to advance this field,” said Ajjawi.

The study has been published in Nature Biotechnology.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific seeks 80pc emissions reductions on some long flights with big switch to biofuels

Airline among world’s first to adopt fuels made largely from landfill rubbish

Cathay Pacific Airways has pledged an 80 per cent cut in the amount of climate-changing gases some of its longest flights pump into the Earth’s atmosphere, by betting big on biofuels.

The Hong Kong carrier will be one of the first airlines in the world to switch to cleaner jet fuels on an industrial scale.

The city is slowly strengthening its push to lessen its contribution to climate change, and the government aims to cut annual carbon emissions per person almost in half by 2030.

The aviation sector had avoided regulation until last year, when its governing body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, agreed a global deal to curb emissions growth by the end of the decade.

Cathay Pacific planes will use fuel made from landfill rubbish. Many of its flights from the United States, where the fuel is being produced, will be able to fly to Hong Kong using a half-half mix of biofuel and conventional fuel by 2019. It is on these trans-Pacific flights that the company expects the 80 per cent emissions reductions.

“Aviation biofuels will play a key role for Cathay and the aviation industry’s quest for lower emissions,” the airline’s biofuel manager, Jeff Ovens, said. “We are on the cusp of large-scale production of low-carbon jet fuel and are eager to use it.”

The high and notoriously unpredictable cost of fuel has forced the airline to control how much it uses. By – among other things – reducing aircraft weight, flying on more direct flight paths and only using one engine to taxi on runways, the company cut emissions and paved the way for the rethink of how it could further cut pollution.

“This is where biofuels come in,” Ovens said. “These fuels will have a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels, and the pricing we have is competitive with traditional fuels.”

Aside from the carbon dioxide reduction, using the mixed fuel avoids emissions of other harmful gases, like methane, given off as rubbish – which will instead be used as fuel – naturally degrades in landfill.

Cathay Pacific passengers are unlikely to see a rise in fares, because the biofuel investments since 2014 have been absorbed into the company’s operating costs. But it is too early to tell whether the switch could lower ticket prices.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary at the Environment Bureau – which spearheaded the government’s 2030 climate action report – said: “I think the world as a whole has come to embrace dealing with climate change, and you are seeing major industry sectors coming forward to say they need to do more.”

But she said the lack of global rules on the production, infrastructure and supply of biofuels made long-term policymaking harder. “I think that is further down the road than we are able to make policies on,” she said.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, CEO of Green Sense, an environmental pressure group, said the airline’s climate effort was a “good start”.

He said: “As one of Asia’s biggest airlines, they can do much more.”

Airlines occasionally test biofuels, mainly with used cooking oil, but not landfill waste.

United Airlines has started running some domestic flights on biofuels regularly, but even then in small quantities.

The airline’s new batch of Airbus A350 planes – themselves 25 per cent more fuel efficient than their forerunners – flew from France to Hong Kong for delivery using a small amount of biofuel.

The airline’s partnership with a US-based renewable fuel producer is on track to help make its flights from the US to Hong Kong International Airport, starting from 2019, greener.

Fulcrum Bioenergy and Cathay Pacific signed an agreement in 2014, helping the airline meet its biofuel supply targets, with a purchase of 375 million gallons of biofuel over 10 years.

That fuel would be enough to supply Cathay Pacific’s 76 weekly US flights to Hong Kong for six months.

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Fuel from sewage is the future – and it’s closer than you think

Technology converts human waste into bio-based fuel

Sludge from Metro Vancouver’s wastewater treatment plant has been dewatered prior to conversion to biocrude oil at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Courtesy of WE&RF

Sludge from Metro Vancouver’s wastewater treatment plant has been dewatered prior to conversion to biocrude oil at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Courtesy of WE&RF

Biocrude oil, produced from wastewater treatment plant sludge, looks and performs virtually like fossil petroleum. Courtesy of WE&RF

Biocrude oil, produced from wastewater treatment plant sludge, looks and performs virtually like fossil petroleum.
Courtesy of WE&RF

RICHLAND, Wash. – It may sound like science fiction, but wastewater treatment plants across the United States may one day turn ordinary sewage into biocrude oil, thanks to new research at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest national Laboratory.

The technology, hydrothermal liquefaction, mimics the geological conditions the Earth uses to create crude oil, using high pressure and temperature to achieve in minutes something that takes Mother Nature millions of years. The resulting material is similar to petroleum pumped out of the ground, with a small amount of water and oxygen mixed in. This biocrude can then be refined using conventional petroleum refining operations.

Wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. treat approximately 34 billion gallons of sewage every day. That amount could produce the equivalent of up to approximately 30 million barrels of oil per year. PNNL estimates that a single person could generate two to three gallons of biocrude per year.

Sewage, or more specifically sewage sludge, has long been viewed as a poor ingredient for producing biofuel because it’s too wet. The approach being studied by PNNL eliminates the need for drying required in a majority of current thermal technologies which historically has made wastewater to fuel conversion too energy intensive and expensive. HTL may also be used to make fuel from other types of wet organic feedstock, such as agricultural waste.

What we flush can be converted into a biocrude oil with properties very similar to fossil fuels. PNNL researchers have worked out a process that does not require that sewage be dried before transforming it under heat and pressure to biocrude. Metro Vancouver in Canada hopes to build a demonstration plant.

Using hydrothermal liquefaction, organic matter such as human waste can be broken down to simpler chemical compounds. The material is pressurized to 3,000 pounds per square inch — nearly one hundred times that of a car tire. Pressurized sludge then goes into a reactor system operating at about 660 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat and pressure cause the cells of the waste material to break down into different fractions — biocrude and an aqueous liquid phase.

“There is plenty of carbon in municipal waste water sludge and interestingly, there are also fats,” said Corinne Drennan, who is responsible for bioenergy technologies research at PNNL. “The fats or lipids appear to facilitate the conversion of other materials in the wastewater such as toilet paper, keep the sludge moving through the reactor, and produce a very high quality biocrude that, when refined, yields fuels such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuels.”

In addition to producing useful fuel, HTL could give local governments significant cost savings by virtually eliminating the need for sewage residuals processing, transport and disposal.

Simple and efficient

“The best thing about this process is how simple it is,” said Drennan. “The reactor is literally a hot, pressurized tube. We’ve really accelerated hydrothermal conversion technology over the last six years to create a continuous, and scalable process which allows the use of wet wastes like sewage sludge.”

An independent assessment for the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation calls HTL a highly disruptive technology that has potential for treating wastewater solids.

WE&RF investigators noted the process has high carbon conversion efficiency with nearly 60 percent of available carbon in primary sludge becoming bio-crude. The report calls for further demonstration, which may soon be in the works.

Demonstration Facility in the Works

PNNL has licensed its HTL technology to Utah-based Genifuel Corporation, which is now working with Metro Vancouver, a partnership of 23 local authorities in British Columbia, Canada, to build a demonstration plant.

“Metro Vancouver hopes to be the first wastewater treatment utility in North America to host hydrothermal liquefaction at one of its treatment plants,” said Darrell Mussatto, chair of Metro Vancouver’s Utilities Committee. “The pilot project will cost between $8 to $9 million (Canadian) with Metro Vancouver providing nearly one-half of the cost directly and the remaining balance subject to external funding.”

Once funding is in place, Metro Vancouver plans to move to the design phase in 2017, followed by equipment fabrication, with start-up occurring in 2018.

“If this emerging technology is a success, a future production facility could lead the way for Metro Vancouver’s wastewater operation to meet its sustainability objectives of zero net energy, zero odours and zero residuals,” Mussatto added.

Nothing left behind

In addition to the biocrude, the liquid phase can be treated with a catalyst to create other fuels and chemical products. A small amount of solid material is also generated, which contains important nutrients. For example, early efforts have demonstrated the ability to recover phosphorus, which can replace phosphorus ore used in fertilizer production.

Development of the HTL process was funded by DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office.

Concrete step on cleaner fuel

The first contractor in Hong Kong to use B5 biodiesel in its batching plants and equipment said it has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5,529 tonnes between 2013, when it started using the cleaner fuel, and the end of last year. The reduction is equivalent to one person taking 5,119 return flights between Hong Kong and Melbourne.

Gammon Construction is the first and only company in Hong Kong that uses the environmentally friendly B5 biodiesel in all of its plants, road vehicles and equipment, such as excavators, in its railway, housing, airport, bridge and other project sites.

Emma Harvey, manager of Gammon’s group sustainability and corporate social responsibility, said using B5 biodiesel also helps reduce landfill waste aside from cutting carbon emissions.

“Another benefit in its use is reducing waste oil that will end up in landfills,” she said, adding B5 biodiesel use has enabled Gammon to reduce its diesel carbon emissions by about 5 percent.

Gammon has also brought B5 biodiesel to retail filling pumps in Hong Kong with its fuel partner Shell. Last November, they introduced this clean fuel to a petrol station in Tsing Yi. Next month, a second petrol station near the airport will offer B5 biodiesel.

Last year, about 15 percent of Gammon’s land vehicles, mostly mixer trucks, used B5 biodiesel. They consumed about two million liters of B5 biodiesel last year.

Gammon procurement head Susan Siu Kit-ling said: “B5 biodiesel costs 30 HK cents more per liter [than ordinary diesel], but this can be offset by reduced usage with the higher efficiency of this fuel type.”

She said Gammon undertakes from time to time planning studies on construction equipment, aimed at reducing diesel consumption.

Siu said waste oil comes mainly from local food producers or grease trap waste, oil and grease separated in wastewater. Gammon only imports waste oil if local supply is not stable. Waste oil helps produce B5 biodiesel. More than 95 percent of Gammon’s timber and plywood requirements for form work carry Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. These wood types have a shorter life cycle and have less adverse impact on the environment.

Gammon also uses low-carbon materials, like low-carbon concrete and cement. It has been awarded the Carbon Care Label Certificate by Carbon Care Asia in 2014 and 2015 for its endeavors in creating low-carbon construction processes and for helping reduce carbon emissions.

South African Airways makes first flight using fuel from tobacco

South African Airways completed a flight using jet fuel made from a tobacco plant, its first contribution to the global push to power more air journeys from renewable resources.

SAA used 6,300 liters of bio jet fuel for the one-way trip to Cape Town from Johannesburg, the state-owned carrier said on Friday. The initiative was carried out in conjunction with plane maker Boeing Co. and jet-fuel producer SkyNRG.

“We want to be flying 50 per cent of our airliners using biofuels by 2022,” Acting Chief Executive Officer Musa Zwane told reporters.

SAA’s maiden biofuels flight comes as it battles insolvency and relies on government-guaranteed loans to survive.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on Thursday asked parliament to grant an extension for the tabling of SAA’s financials for the year ending March 2015, which are now a year overdue, as the Treasury considers whether to grant further support.

Airlines are examining ways to power more flights from biofuels to limit the environmental impact of aviation and ease dependency on oil. Unprofitable SAA aims to have used 20 million liters of bio-jet fuel by the fourth quarter of 2017, Ian Cruickshank, its head of environmental affairs, told reporters in Cape Town. He said the company is seeking to use 500 million liters by the same time in 2023.


Meet the US farmers turning their tobacco into airplane fuel

As the demand for tobacco declines in the US, farmers in Virginia are experimenting with turning the crop into viable biofuel

Most of the tobacco growing across 80-acres at Briar View Farms in Callands, Virginia is chosen for its flavour and high nicotine content. The leaves are hand-harvested, flue-cured or dark-fired and sold as smoking or chewing tobacco at premium prices.

One two-acre plot stands apart from the rest, its flavour and nicotine content are irrelevant. The June and October harvests are mechanised and the entire plant, including leaves and stems, are cut with a silage chopper and tossed into metal bins. All of the tobacco plants harvested are turned into biofuel.

On Briar View Farms, first-generation tobacco grower Robert Mills hopes tobacco-based biofuel can spark a profitable future for tobacco growers. “With the uncertainty of tobacco, growers are always looking for new opportunities,” he says.

Over the past four decades, the demand for tobacco in the US has declined. In the 1970s, US farmers grew more than 2bn pounds (900,000 tonnes) of tobacco; by 2012, production dropped to about 800m pounds (360,000 tonnes). The number of tobacco farms declined from 180,000 in the 1980s to just 10,000 in 2012, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 2009, the US biofuel company Tyton BioEnergy Systems has partnered with agronomists from Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University and tobacco growers to research the potential for turning tobacco into biomass. Mills grows two acres of energy tobacco under contract with Tyton.

“We’re experimenting with varieties that were discarded 50 years ago by traditional tobacco growers because the flavours were poor or the plants didn’t have enough nicotine,” explains Tyton co-founder Peter Majeranowski.

Researchers are pioneering selective breeding techniques and genetic engineering to increase tobacco’s sugar and seed oil content to create a promising source of renewable fuel. The low-nicotine varieties require little maintenance, are inexpensive to grow and thrive where other crops would fail.

“There is a lot of land not being used in tobacco regions that isn’t good for growing row crops,” Majeranowski says. “Instead of growing low-value crops like hay, farmers can earn more revenue per acre growing ‘energy tobacco’.”

Tyton BioEnergy Systems isn’t alone in its quest to turn tobacco into a viable biofuel. In 2013, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with UC Berkeley and University of Kentucky, received a $4.8m grant from the US Department of Energy to research the potential of tobacco as a biofuel. While in South Africa, Project Solaris, a collaboration between Boeing and South African Airways, is focused on developing aviation biofuel from tobacco crops with a goal of operating its first tobacco-fuelled passenger flight in 2016.

For tobacco producers, the transition is simple: growing energy tobacco is similar to growing smoking tobacco and requires the same equipment and skills; because the harvest is mechanised, it takes less labour to produce a crop.

One acre of tobacco can yield up to 80 wet tons of biomass and all of the byproducts, including sugars, oils and proteins, can be used in products ranging from biofuel and animal feed to soil amendments (nutrients added to improve soil).

“I know we’re not going to get the same returns we get on traditional tobacco but we have a lot less labour so it’s a lot cheaper to produce and it’s more competitive per acre than commodities like corn and soybeans,” says Mills, who started growing tobacco under contract with Tyton in 2011.

The potential to turn tobacco into a different kind of cash crop enticed grower Chris Haskins to sign a contract with Tyton in 2013 to grow 1.5 acres of energy tobacco on his 50-acre farm in Chatham, Virginia.

“Tobacco has been a mainstay for farmers in this area,” Haskins says. “It’s nice to see it getting some positive press and building hope for farmers that it can be used in positive ways.”

While Haskins is hopeful, some tobacco growers are sceptical. These are just pilot projects and energy tobacco is not yet being sold on the open market, so there are no established prices. “I think there’s still a large amount of ‘wait and see if this is for real’ attitude among growers,” says Tim Pfohl, grants program director for the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

According to Pfohl, the commission supports opportunities to build new markets for tobacco growers, noting that alternative buyers for tobacco crops will keep growers from being tied to the cigarette manufacturer contract system. The commission gave Tyton BioEnergy Systems a grant of $2.78m in 2012, to further its research.

“The end game for the commission … is new jobs and private investment in tobacco region production facilities,” Pfohl says.

Tyton has 30 acres of research trials under way and, in 2014, created a partner company, Tyton NC Biofuels, pledging $36m to start a tobacco ethanol refinery in Hoke County, North Carolina. As investments increase and bioenergy gets more attention in the media, interest from farmers is growing.

“Now that I’m going into my fourth season as a contract grower, I can see how far we’ve come and I can see tobacco being a viable source of energy for the future,” Mills says. “There is a new generation of farmers that are more progressive and looking for alternatives and this gives farmers opportunities for diversity. Now is the right time to focus on tobacco as a biofuel.”

Urban biowaste, a sustainable source of bioenergy?

This article was originally written by Mariel Vilella, Zero Waste Europe Associate Director & Climate, Energy & Air Pollution Campaigner for the EU BIoenergy Blog

Although most bioenergy is produced by burning agricultural and forestry biomass, it is also generated by burning the organic parts of municipal solid waste, biowaste or urban biomass. This includes food waste from restaurants, households, farmers markets, gardens, textiles, clothing, paper and other materials of organic origin. But have you ever tried to fuel a bonfire with a salad? Probably not, so this may not be the most efficient use of urban biowaste.

At the EU level, urban biowaste, far from being managed by one set of straightforward policies, is instead held at the intersection of several competing mandates: the circular economy, climate, bioenergy and air pollution. Policies which have an impact, yet fail to drive the most sustainable use of this resource.

Most waste and circular economy policies aim at increasing recycling and resource efficiency of urban biowaste resources by promoting composting and biogas production, while climate and energy policies incentivize burning biowaste to generate energy under the assumption that the energy produced is ‘renewable’, ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘sustainable’. This presents a significant contradiction at the heart of EU environmental policy, one that gets particularly hot within the current sustainable bioenergy debate.

Far from being ‘sustainable’, energy from urban biowaste is often produced under very inappropriate circumstances, particularly when organic waste is mixed with the rest of residual waste (anything that cannot be recycled or reused) and sent to an incineration plant or so-called waste-to-energy plant. These plants then claim that the burning of this organic fraction is ‘bioenergy’ or ‘renewable energy’. In the UK, for example, incinerator companies can claim that an average of 50% of the energy produced is ‘renewable’ under these assumptions.[1]

Under the Waste Hierarchy, incineration of municipal solid waste is not only one of the worst options for waste treatment, it’s actually a real waste of energy and resources when one considers the low calorific value of organic waste. Incineration is a terribly unfit technology to burn organic waste which then requires a significant amount of high caloric materials to be added, e.g., plastics or other potentially recyclable or ‘redesignable’ materials so that it functions properly. Under these circumstances, efficiency and sustainability do not score highly. But even more troubling, the financial and political support that should be committed to clean, sustainable and reliable sources of energy is being misused in the most inefficient way by supporting the burning of resources which could be composted, recycled, reused or simply never wasted to begin with.

Today in the EU, harmful subsidies from renewable energy policies are one of the major obstacles to fully implementing a Circular Economy, because they continue to finance and green-wash the construction of waste-burning facilities across Europe. What should be done with urban biowaste instead? The Waste Hierarchy as seen below provides a clear detailed guideline which should be at the foundation of any policy looking at Municipal Solid Waste.


First, organic waste can be reduced through various measures, e.g., improved labeling, better portioning, awareness raising and educational campaigns around food waste and home composting. Secondly, priority should be given to the recovery of edible food so that it is targeted at human consumption first, and alternatively used as animal feed. Next, non-edible organic waste should be composted and used as fertiliser for agriculture, soil restoration and carbon sequestration. Additionally, garden trimmings, discarded food and food-soiled paper should be composted in low-tech small-scale process sites whenever possible. In larger areas, composting could be done in a centralised way with more technologically advanced systems.

As an alternative to composting, depending on local circumstances and the levels of nitrogen in the soils, non-edible organic waste should be used to produce biogas through Anaerobic Digestion technology, a truly renewable source of energy as well as soil enhancer. If there was any organic waste within the residual waste stream, a Material Recovery – Biological Treatment (MRBT) could be considered because it allows for the recovery of dry materials for further recycling and stabilizes the organic fraction prior to landfilling, with a composting-like process. In the lower tier, landfill and incineration are the least preferable and last resort options.

Ultimately, energy policies for a low-carbon economy should progressively move away from extracting as much energy as possible from waste and instead increase measures to preserve the embedded energy in products, a far more efficient and sustainable approach to resource use.

Zero Waste Europe network and many other organisations around the world have called on the European Commission to use the Waste Hierarchy to guide the EU’s post-2020 sustainable bioenergy policy and phase out harmful subsidies that support energy from waste incineration. The revision of the Renewable Energy Directive and the development of a Sustainable Policy on Bioenergy is an opportunity for Europe to become a leader in sustainable and renewable energy, but it’s critical to ensure that these sources are clean, efficient and their use evidence-based.

Garbage in, energy out: creating biofuel from plastic waste

An Australian startup has found a way to transform end-of-life plastics into bio-crude fuel. But is this a sustainable solution or just pollution displacement?

A McDonald’s container washed up on the beach.

A McDonald’s container washed up on the beach.

At first glance, the polystyrene container buried amid the beach detritus was unremarkable. Closer inspection however yielded something jarring about this discarded filet-o-fish box. Discovered by locals cleaning up in the wake of a storm last month on a South Australian beach, the polystyrene-based clamshell container bore a stylistically-dated design and logo, yet the packaging itself appeared as good as new.

It wasn’t new – McDonald’s stopped using such containers in 1991, so it had drifted in the Gulf St Vincent and beyond or lain buried within sand dunes for at least two-and-a-half decades.

By the life cycle standards of plastics however, this humble burger container was just beginning its journey; polystyrene foam remains intact for about 500 years before breaking down into chemicals that linger far longer than that.

Historians typically define eras by the type of material civilisations leave behind: the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age. The archeologists of the future may well look back on the modern era as the plastic age, our legacy piling up in landfill, clogging up rivers, floating about the oceans, and choking or poisoning wildlife – and the humans who eat the wildlife – for centuries to come.

If University of Sydney Prof Thomas Maschmeyer has anything to do with it, the historians of tomorrow will have to, at a certain point, refer to a different material to chart human progress. That’s not because he has worked out a way to replace plastic, but rather a way to get rid of it.

Maschmeyer’s renewable energy startup Licella is taking a more refined approach to the idea of waste incineration, pioneering a method to transform end-of-life plastics into a bio-crude petroleum substitute.

Renewable Chemical Technologies Ltd (RCTL), backed by UK energy investor Armstrong Energy, is investing A$10m (£5m) into Licella’s plan to build the world’s first commercial hydrothermal waste upgrading plant. Licella will develop and test a recycling plant in Australia before shipping it to the UK, with the first plant to be integrated into an existing facility, which Licella hopes will be the first of many.

The aim of the partnership is for RCTL to develop projects to convert end-of-life plastics into high-quality oil, suitable for blending into standard hydrocarbon fuels, using Licella’s proprietary catalytic hydrothermal reactor platform that has been developed in partnership with the University of Sydney.

Maschmeyer says the partnership will tackle the issue of what to do with end-of-life plastics – the remnants of mixed plastics with small amounts of paper and cardboard that are left over from more easily recyclable components.

“Dealing with end-of-life plastics is challenging and expensive, as they vary considerably and have traditionally had to be sorted in order to be recycled effectively,” he says.

“This investment will allow for the deployment of our technological solution on a commercial scale, with up to 20,000 tonnes to be transformed from waste to product annually from next year just from the first plant alone,” says Dr Len Humphreys, chair of Licella.

Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are interested in making use of such fuel, and the process can also turn waste products from the pulp and paper industry into bio-crude, a possibility that has attracted Canadian pulp and paper producer Canfor onboard to develop a full-scale commercial operation.

However, experts warn that bio-crudes are not without their own environmental consequences.

Dr Tom Beer, honorary fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and former leader of the transport biofuels stream of the CSIRO energy transformed flagship, says turning plastics into bio-crude does present an environmental trade-off in respect to carbon emissions.

“Of the oil that gets extracted out of the ground, about a third is used to produce plastics, which effectively locks the carbon up into plastic,” he says.

“If you then turn it into bio-crude and burn it, that is no longer the case. It depends what you value most, do you want to get plastic out of landfill, and out of the oceans, then fantastic, but it does mean carbon emissions.”

Prof David Cohen, a specialist in the use of nuclear techniques to track fine particle air pollution at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, says carbon would not be the only thing emitted in the use of bio-crude.

“At the front end, production of a product like this is going to involve an energy component to convert it into fuel,” he says.

“Then at the back end, if you convert organic material into fuel and then burn it – then you are going to end up with a combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and byproducts that could include soot, volatile organic carbons and carbon dioxide, which are all not so good for the atmosphere.

“Technologies like these are a step in the right direction, but in my opinion it’s renewable or low emission energies that will deliver the output you want – power – without what is essentially pollution displacement.”

“It’s like squeezing a long balloon. You squeeze the middle and the ends get bigger. You squeeze both ends and the middle gets bigger. You squeeze one end and the rest gets bigger.”

Maschmeyer says that in terms of processing, Licella has managed to dramatically reduce carbon emissions via a groundbreaking technique that involves extracting hydrogen from water, and has a much lower carbon footprint than typical crude oil processing.

“The crude oil refining process takes about 12% of the oil ending up as CO2 before burning the oil, just in the process of taking it out of the ground,” he says.

“What we do is taking something already purified, and all we are doing is re-purifying.”

In terms of the end use of the bio-crude, he says that the economy is not 100% green just yet, and for as long as fossil fuels need to be used – such as in jet fuel – bio-crude is a more environmentally-friendly option given the comparatively lower carbon emissions and the added benefit of removing plastic from the environment.

“It is reusing, not renewable, but whilst [we’re still] using fossil fuels, reuse is certainly more attractive.”

Chinese firm plans €1bn Finnish biorefinery

Will produce 200,000 t/y second generation biofuel

CHINESE bioenergy company Sunshine Kaidi New Energy Group has announced plans to build a €1bn (US$1.1bn) wood-based biorefinery in Kemi, Finland.

The biorefinery will produce 200,000 t/y of second-generation biofuels, 75% of which will be biodiesel and the remainder biogasoline. The biorefinery will be the largest single investment ever made by a Chinese company in Finland, and Kaidi has established a Finnish subsidiary to oversee the project.

The biorefinery will be the first of its kind in the world, while the design will be based on Kaidi’s pilot plant in Wuhan, China. The feedstock for the plant will be sustainably-sourced wood, forestry industry waste and bark. Kaidi says it will need around 2m m3/y of wood, which will be sourced from within a 200 km radius of Kemi. The refinery will use plasma gasification to convert the organic matter into syngas, followed by a cleanup step to remove impurities. The refined syngas will then be subject to the Fischer-Tropsch process to make liquid hydrocarbons. The final products will be suitable for use as drop-in fuels or for blending with petrochemical fuels.

Construction on the site is expected to begin in 2017, with the plant beginning operations in 2019. The plant will employ around 150 permanent staff, with several hundred extra jobs created in wood harvesting, transportation and machinery manufacture. Finland’s forestry industry has suffered in recent years due to the downturn in paper demand, so this is likely to be a welcome boost.

Kaidi chairman and CEO Cheng Yilong said that Finland’s experience in the forestry industry and “positive political climate” had been big incentives to invest in the country.

“Finland is the most interesting investment target in terms of biofuels in the Northern Hemisphere. Finland’s bioeconomy policies are particularly advanced and ambitious, it has large biomass resources and many interesting co-operation partners,” said Cheng.