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ADBA R&D Forum to take the AD industry to the next level

We’ve now finalised our programme for the ADBA R&D Forum 2015. We are organising this Forum because we believe in pushing the industry, and those who work in it, to improve performance and maximise our use of the bioresources available. This way we can be more profitable and make a higher contribution to meeting energy and climate change objectives.

The UK has a world-leading academic base, with researchers studying which new technologies and feedstocks can make an impact, and developing models for those technologies on society and the climate. We are keen to challenge researchers to think about how any new technology can be applied in practice in the commercial world, but we are lucky to have this research base.

That’s why we are bringing together the best researchers and most forward-looking companies in the sector to transfer research into world-beating products.

We’re excited to be holding the Forum at the University of Southampton, who are partners in the AD Network, which is a network of six leading academics and six companies in the AD sector that is distributing £900,000-worth of funding to develop the sector. Professor Charles Banks will be talking to us about how R&D moves the industry forward – one of Charles’ areas of expertise is in maximising the rates of conversion of feedstock into biogas, which is an area the whole industry will always be keen on hearing. Charles is in much demand on developing AD for waste treatment around the world, and most notably in China, so we are very pleased that he is able to host the event.

Chris Goodall of Carbon Commentary (part of the Guardian Environment Network) will give us an overview of the importance of AD to the carbon reduction agenda. One of Chris’ interests is how technology can help to tackle the climate change, so we’ll be keen to hear his thoughts for AD, and his perspective on where our sector fits in the wider picture.

Biorefining – producing higher-value products from AD

Our first session at the Forum will discuss whether AD is moving towards being part of a ‘biorefinery’ process in which a number of products are made from a feedstock. AD plants already produce energy and fertilisers. Where these fertilisers have a high economic value AD plants could arguably already be given the label ‘biorefinery’. Where waste carbon dioxide or heat are used in local greenhouses to support the production of food, we are another step closer to the concept. But we may need to be even cleverer in producing more high value products if the industry is to continue to thrive in a time when the subsidies for electricity or biomethane production are falling. So Dr Dhivya Puri of Southampton University, Steve Broome of the Centre for Process Industries, and Professor Sandra Esteves of the Wales Centre for Excellence in AD, will all be talking about how the industry can build on its existing strengths and create new revenue streams.

The question I’ll be asking is – how soon will it be before we will be making Lego and bike tyres from AD?!

Innovative feedstocks

Here at ADBA we’ve previously estimated that we could produce 40 TWh of biomethane each year, which equates to over 10% of domestic gas demand. We highlight this figure to government to show what a significant industry we can be in energy terms (with the greenhouse gas reduction impact of AD being even higher). This event is where we can challenge that figure and look at how new feedstocks can increase that figure. In five years we will be using a much higher figure than the 40 TWh. But which are the feedstocks and yield improvements that will make that figure history?

Algae is a particularly interesting area – AD already produces many of the key inputs required (or at least helpful) to produce algae: nutrients, water, heat and carbon dioxide. Furthermore, other low carbon technologies such as wind may produce power on windy days when we may not have a sufficient demand for it (which could provide cheap electric lighting to further enhance algal growth). Algae could therefore be grown using very little land – we need the technology to be viable. But don’t take my word about the potential for algae – Dr Robert Lovitt of Swansea University and EnAlgae (a group of 19 members from across Europe seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions with algae) will be telling us about this.

A further area is wetland biomass. I’ve already written in length about that here. Some of the feedback from that blog has been whether reeds (particularly older ones) contain too much lignin to be easily biodigestible. To bring in new feedstocks we are clearly going to need to consider pre-treatment technologies and a number have been proposed: enzymes during storage and high frequency sound or microwave ECT. Miscanthus has the potential to produce higher tonnages from the same land as other crops for AD. We may need a similar debate to the wetland biomass on pre-treatment or storage and we should use the Forum to taking these potential feedstocks one step closer to full commercial viability.

We have Richard Gueterbock of Clearfleau chairing this session on feedstocks. Having built and commissioned a number of AD plants using a wide variety of industrial feedstocks, Richard will be able to add a knowledgeable insight to the debate.

In addition to the feedstocks I’ve mentioned (and the ones we already know about: food waste, sewage sludge, crops and farm animal wastes), there are many more we need to discuss that could increase the potential for generating more energy and new products:

– AD can be an important part of making use of ‘waste’ electricity (when the electrical output from wind surpasses the demand on the grid on windy days). Using the electricity to produce hydrogen via electrolysis, which can then be used in an AD plant to increase methane output. How much more can this add to the picture?
– Would a successful dry AD industry mean we could treat much more (high lignin) garden waste, leaves and grass cuttings?
– Can greenhouse horticulture be further integrated with AD to produce the food or plant products along with energy and fertiliser from the waste streams? How much does using waste carbon dioxide and heat add to the growth of these plants and therefore potential waste or co-products?
– Could fruit orchard wastes such as apples be significant? How best could their potential be maximised?
– Has an assessment been conducted of the amount of glycerol that might be produced now and in 2020/30? What could this add?
– Has fish and seafood processing waste been assessed?
– How can AD be integrated into more advanced food production systems such as hydroponics and aquaponics?

When you start to think about these potential sources, the potential for the industry starts to sound much bigger. It is the integration with food production systems that really makes the difference – therefore the biorefinery and digestate sessions feed in to this debate.

That’s why we’re going to be asking “Can we double or quadruple the potential for the AD industry?”

Funding research

 

Continued research is important to bringing new technologies to market, looking at innovative new ways of processing, and widening the range of feedstocks that can be processed through AD. We need this research to continue and we need AD to be a focus of Government research funding.

I’m chairing a session on how research and development funding can be used by AD researchers and technology providers to develop the industry. The WRAP funding on for digestate research and the Driving Innovation in AD (DIAD) projects is getting smaller and will unfortunately come to an end. To continue the research in these areas the sector needs to look to funding bodies such as Innovate UK (the UK Government’s technology commercialisation body), the European Commission (Horizon 2020), the Bio-Based Industries Consortium (BBI), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

We have representatives from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme (Ian Holmes) and from BBSRC (Alexandra Amey) attending to talk us through what funding is available and when, and also what the key criteria are for making applications. A number of ADBA members have been interested in applying for some of these schemes but have felt that the criteria were too stringent and were therefore put off. So I hope we can learn more about the process and work out how the needs of the industry can be met.

Digestate

We start day two with a provocative title: can you earn £100 per tonne for your digestate?

The industry has long been discussing how to turn digestate into a higher-value product that provides an income. A recent WRAP report on the AD industry indicated that many operators are not receiving any income for their digestate – we believe that markets can be found for extracting income for these. WRAP have asked a number of researchers to study how digestate can be used outside of the agricultural sector. We’ve asked these WRAP researchers to come and tell us their results. And many of the results are positive – Dr Nick Cheffins of Peakhill Associates is optimistic that the separated fraction of digestate from agricultural feedstock could compete with peat in nursery production.

Andreas Weger of Fraunhofer UMSICHT will talk about how thermal catalytic reforming can convert digestate into products such as oil, gas and biochar. The biochar can be used as a nutrient-rich fertiliser.

Ben Herbert will tell us about a project to produce a homogenous land conditioner with high nutrient value from a mixture of the ash from wood combustion and digestate from AD.

John Williams of ADAS will also be telling us about the work that ADAS have been doing on digestate.

Processing digestate into a saleable cheap Oakleys product would transform the economics of AD so we will continue to monitor research and market development in this area and disseminate any results.

New technologies to improve operational performance

One of our key aims at ADBA is to improve operational performance across the industry. We do this through our operator groups and working groups on areas like health and safety and environmental management. A further element of this is increasing yields and energy generation – making more use of the existing material that comes into the industry. I recently did a study of small scale AD and found that biogas yield assumptions and engine/boiler efficiency had a marked effect on the financial case for new projects – even a 1% change in one of the parameters will have an important impact on viability.

So we’ve selected a panel of experts, chaired by a leading industry expert, Dorian Harrison of Monsal/GE, who can advise on how to bring new technologies to market. These technologies may be bolt-ons to existing systems or they may be integral parts of new processes. We have David Vaughan of the Biorenewables Development Centre talking about commercialisation of microwave hydrolysis as a feedstock pre-treatment technology and advising small AD operators on the suitability of feedstocks. We also have Dr Raffaella Villa of Cranfield University talking about some of the work they have done to support small and medium-sized companies in optimising operational performance and the small scale food waste treatment plant they have developed.

Clare Lukehurst will talk about the work the International Energy Agency (IEA) has been doing to the potential to bring down the cost of small scale AD. Much research has been conducted in this area and the UK has a competitive advantage over other countries that have focussed on larger systems. Costs have the potential to fall in this area if a larger number of small tanks can be manufactured. Manufacturing innovation is therefore important at the small scale. What is clear is that we need to focus on this area if we are going to introduce AD plants on each of the 10,000 or so dairy farms in the UK. From a sustainability point of view it would be beneficial for each dairy farm to have a digester but can it be made to work from a practical and financial point of view?

Sustainability

Biomass sustainability criteria are new rules that will be introduced to the Renewable Heat Incentive in October and possibly the Feed-in Tariff in future. Most operators using crops or some residues will be required to measure a wide range of data from diesel use in tractors to tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser used to grow crops to biogas production and heat output. One of the most important metrics that operators will need to know (or agree an assumption on) is ‘fugitive’ methane emissions from digester tanks. Dr Paul Adams is a leading expert on sustainability criteria and is researching fugitive methane losses from AD plants. The results from this could be crucial to the industry because without real data on this the industry is at risk of losing RHI payments due to not meeting the new rules. Paul’s analysis is hugely valuable to current and future operators who will need to comply with these regulations.

We also have David Styles of the University of Bangor talking about research he has conducted on the use of crops and wastes for AD using a life-cycle analysis. Dr Mirjam Roeder of Manchester University will tell us about public perceptions of land use and how those can be managed.

Thames Water

We’ve also delighted that Thames Water, one of the leading AD operators, has agreed to tell us about their work on innovation. Focussing on operational performance and how to maximise the products of their AD process, they will explain how their feedstock is pre-treated and their digestate is used.

Event attendees

As well as this line-up of speakers, it is also encouraging to have so many of our industry companies already confirmed to attend. This will give the commercial opinions we need to move some of the research on to the next stage.

Conclusion

I’m really excited by the programme and it should be a great event. I fully intend on taking in all the information and following up any actions for ADBA to ensure that new technologies and approaches are converted into progress for the industry. I look forward to seeing you there!

The R&D Forum is being held at the University of Southampton on 14-15 April 2015. For more details or to book your place, click here.

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