Resolutions fade; reality bites; but optimism remains

Tom Anderson

Business Development Manager, EBRI

This article first appeared in MRW Magazine

(27th February 2016)

February is usually the time when New Year’s resolutions made with best intentions begin to unravel. Old habits creep back to the surface Picture1and we realise just how hard it can be to make genuine, lasting change in our lives. As the first blast of arctic wind in early January blew away my resolve to get up at six o’clock every morning to walk the dog, it brought to mind the sense that the early optimism surrounding December’s ‘Paris Agreement’ to limit global climate change was starting to unravel as it faced up to the cold, hard reality of 2016’s seemingly confused government energy policy and rock-bottom oil prices.

We wait to see how the government’s change-of-tack on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technology and the degression of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme for biomass projects will affect industry confidence but it is perhaps no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has sought it necessary to publish an open letter to Government urging clearer leadership and stable policy.

But this is not another column taking pot shots at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Rather, I want to shine a light on a different challenge that the country faces as we seek to decarbonise our economy.

Running parallel to the UK’s transition to low carbon sources of power and heat is the equally challenging transformation taking place within the UK’s chemicals industry as it gets to grips with producing renewable chemicals and fuels from wastes and biomass.

Regular readers of MRW will be familiar with the advances in waste-to-energy technologies but there are also some lesser-known – but game-changing – technological innovations taking place to transform biomass and wastes into higher-value chemical products and advanced transport fuels.

We shouldn’t forget that biomass – including municipal solid waste, commercial waste, food waste and crop waste – is a truly remarkable resource. Not only do these materials contain energy that can be harnessed to power our industries but they also contain the chemical building blocks needed to produce an array of higher-value chemical products, materials and fuels.

Cellulose sugars and lignin, contained within organic wastes can be refined through innovative ‘bio-refinery’ processes to create a range of high-value bio-based polymers, chemicals and products, mimicking the concept of an oil refinery where crude oil is refined into different grades of chemical products and fuels.

And it is the production of these higher-value products that offers greatest commercial rewards. In the same way that an oil refinery creates more value from chemical production than it does from producing petrol or diesel fuels, so too can the bio-refinery concept offer the waste management industry a route to more lucrative products than just energy. For example, chemical products such as succinic acid, which can be produced by fermentation of sugars from agricultural wastes, commands a market price of more than £6,000 per tonne for use as an additive in the food and drink industry. Globally, industry analysts forecast that the market for bio-based chemicals will exceed £360billion by 2025, with the UK accounting for a £12billion market share alone.

With such potential it is no wonder that leading companies within the sector are already making inroads into this growth market: Clean-tech company Fiberight Ltd are working on exciting projects to transform municipal solid waste (MSW) into high-value cellulosic biofuels then can be utilised as a renewable feedstock for the chemical industry, and technology developer Advanced Plasma Power (featured in Vol 204 Issue 25 of MRW) have developed their Gasplasma technology to transform residue material into advanced biofuels.

Closer to home, my colleagues at the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) have been pioneering the concept of the bio-refinery and have developed an easy-to-use online modelling tool to help businesses and entrepreneurs explore and interrogate commercial models for producing high-value chemicals from waste.

Of course, with crude oil currently trading at around $30 a barrel, conventional wisdom suggest that the business case for substituting fossil-derived chemicals with bio-based alternatives looks weaker than it might have done a year ago. And whilst there is certainly truth in that assessment perhaps it misses a more important point. With emissions of more than 18million tonnes of CO2 per year, the chemicals industry is one the UK’s primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions and it faces a fundamental challenge to decarbonise its operations in line with the national commitments made in the ‘Paris Agreement’. Temporarily cheap oil offers no long-term solution to this challenge.

So, whilst the New Year’s good intentions to decarbonise our economy may have faltered in the face of policy reversals and volatile oil prices, we should remain optimistic that continued innovation to produce renewable chemicals from wastes will ultimately deliver truly lasting change.

To find out more about EBRI and its online modelling tool email [email protected]