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Turning Muck into Money: The Biogas Revolution Takes Off


The smell of manure is not enticing. Indeed, waste of whatever description is something we tend to avoid thinking about. But as the adage goes: "where there's muck there's brass", and so it is that businesses have always been drawn to this less than salubrious arena to earn money.

Now a new generation of entrepreneurs has plans to alter the way we deal with waste. Using new technologies and techniques, they have uncovered ways to convert it into energy and more efficient fertiliser, reduce methane emissions and pollution, cut bad smells and, as one entrepreneur puts it, "turn muck into money".

New Generation Biogas (NGB), founded in 2009, has developed a new type of anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. AD plants use microbes to process waste, separating out useful gases and nutrients to make energy and fertiliser. NGB's Archemax system has been created off the back of decades of data, and its inventors say its algorithms make it faster and more efficient than anything else on the market. It can also dramatically reduce methane emissions.

"This is about as environmentally friendly as you can get," says NGB director Howard Sutton. "It's using a natural process and taking the waste from other biological processes, capturing gases which are dangerous for the atmosphere," says Sutton. "If you allow slurry from animals to be spread on the fields then you are allowing a greenhouse gas, methane, which is 21 times worse than CO2, to be released into the atmosphere."

Sutton says that while much attention has focused on reducing emissions from cars and power plants, food production is all too often ignored. "The livestock sector is the forgotten area of greenhouse gas emissions. It's a fact that livestock emit more greenhouse gases than transport ... As developing countries take on a more western diet, they will eat more dairy and meat, so they will have more cattle and emissions."

Bringing Archemax to market involved £900,000 of government grant funding, including £723,000 from Innovate UK, as well as £500,000 from the founders and angel investors. Sutton says the investment for farmers is comparable to plant machinery like combine harvesters, and they can expect to get a return on investment within five years: "We believe there's going to be a lot more interest in this area and it's a market we can attack and make good inroads into, which is good for everybody."

AD plants clean up waste, but they don't address all farmyard pollution problems. One issue is that the fertiliser produced by anaerobic digestion tends to be in liquid form, which can be difficult to manage. Quinton Fivelman, now CEO of ADFerTech, was working as a consultant for Queen's University Belfast when this issue was brought to his attention.

"An AD plant [representative] came to the university and said: 'We've got this massive problem. We are producing a lot of this nutrient rich liquid and we can't get rid of it. We could spread it on the farms, but if the fields are wet it won't soak in, and then it runs off and pollutes the water courses. It's difficult to store, to spread, and there are limits to how much you can spread anyway.'"

However, within the university there was a solution; a technology which turns this liquid into fertiliser pellets. Fivelman licensed the technology to create his business. "Our system is a bolt-on, which can be put at the end of any existing AD plant. It takes the liquid and removes the nutrients to make a product. It's literally turning muck into money."

ADFerTech has gained grant funding totalling nearly £600,000 from government agencies such as Innovate UK, Invest NI, Waste Resources Action Programme and Climate-KIC, and is set to start selling its prototype model this year. Fivelman expects his units to sell in the £150,000-£200,000 range and says his market research suggests significant demand. "Every AD plant I have spoken to wanted it. It's a lot cheaper than building a waste water treatment plant, which can cost £1m or more and is still very expensive to maintain. These are a lot cheaper and a lot cleaner."

He also says it's essential from an environmental point of view to change the way we deal with food waste. "AD is growing rapidly worldwide, even in China and Asia. Almost half of all food is thrown away worldwide, in some countries possibly higher. So if we can turn that into energy then that could power tens of millions of homes worldwide; it's like building lots more power stations."

Article cited from: http://goo.gl/jxYRSR