- Spanish company Ingelia has developed an industrial process to produce biocarbon fuel, which can be made using sewage.
- The resulting product burns like coal but the actual production is carbon neutral — and it has a considerably lower production of harmful wastes such as nitrogen, sulfur, and chlorine.
- By turning organic waste into a biocarbon that doesn't emit CO2 or other pollutants when produced, Ingelia may have just found a much more sustainable energy source than traditional coal.
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The European Commision has pledged that the EU will cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Realistically, everyone will need to get stuck in to actually hit that target but at the moment, the prospects don't look fantastic: to halt climate change, the UN has said "unprecedented change" will be required, both on a social and on a global level .
However, Spanish company Ingelia may have the key to at least part of the solution: after developing an industrial process to produce a biocarbon called "biochar" which can be used as a much cleaner energy source to traditional coal.
Ten years ago, Marisa Hernández, along with two other partners at Ingelia, managed to develop an industrial process capable of converting organic waste (such as sewage and compost) into biochar.
The resulting product works and burns like coal but, most interestingly, has much less of the residual pollutants when produced: despite having the same potential in energy production as standard coal, its production process has a zero CO2 emission rate, as well as a considerably lower production of harmful wastes such as nitrogen, sulfur, and chlorine.
From sewage and compost to viable fuel
"Under specific pressure and temperature conditions, 20 bars and 200ºC, we dehydrate the organic matter and siphon off the humid matter in liquid form," explained the CEO. "In other words, we concentrate 95% of the carbon in the waste."
During Ingelia's thermochemical conversion process (known as hydrothermal carbonization), harmful wastes such as nitrogen, sulfur, and chlorine are, for the most part, siphoned off in the residual liquid.
The result, after an eight-hour process, is a solid, dry, cylindrical material that could replace fossil-derived carbon fuel.
The co-founder also noted that bad smells produced as a byproduct of the composting process are avoided by containing the treatment of the waste matter in a closed tank, allowing plants to be situated closer to population centers.
"It has the same calorific value and combustion structure," said Hernández. She added: "Compared with a standard composting or a biogas plant where the process takes around 30 days, the timescale for our method is as little as eight hours."
From small beginnings in Valencia to international expansion
Hernández's determination earned the Ingelia co-founder and CEO a nomination in the Women's category for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) awards, presented earlier this month at its annual conference in Budapest.
The company has already outsourced this process to its waste plants in Spain, the UK, and Italy. In fact, Italy's largest sewage manager has also implemented the process in their Tuscany plant where they treat 80,000 tons of sewage per year and the Belgian town of Oostende too is set to have a plant that treats 20,000 tons of organic waste matter with four reactors.
"We use the organic collection of trash, the organic portion of municipal waste, sewage from treatment plants, and even waste from gardening," explained Hernández.
The company closed 2017 with a turnover of $2.29 million and aims to raise to $3.44 million at the end of this year. The real spike is set to take place next year, and is that in 2019, Ingelia expects to reach $28.4 million in turnover and up to $107 million for 2022.
"In these sorts of projects, you invest during the first years. Currently, we've just entered the first phase of moderate sales but, from next year, is when you see the jump," the executive said. Hernández added that her company is currently in negotiations with the majority of waste management companies in Spain.
Energy, batteries, and biopolymers
The solution this Spanish company has put forward is a way of storing renewable energy in the form of biomass, however, it isn't just that; this biochar has other applications too.
It could be used to work batteries, or even to produce specific materials such as biopolymers, possibly for producing plastics or perhaps as substitutes for peat in soil enrichment.
"With our process, by 2022 we'd be able to replace 220,000 tons of coal per year and avoid the emission of half a million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere," said the CEO, adding that the company was planning to capture 3% of the European waste management market.