Aquaflow: next-gen biofuels a commercial reality

Positive news this week from the Nelson-based algae company Aquaflow whose fortunes we have followed on Hot Topic over the past three years. I last reported on them in August 2011, when they had signed an agreement for joint testing and evaluation with Texas-based CRI Catalyst Company (CRI). Now they have announced a full technology cooperation agreement with that company which they believe leaves them poised to make refining next generation biofuels a commercial reality in New Zealand and in overseas projects within the two to three years it takes to build a refinery.

That’s big news if it comes to fruition. Director Nick Gerritsen says: “We should be able to produce renewable hydrocarbon fuel that is equivalent to fossil fuel at a cost that is highly competitive with the current per barrel price of crude oil.” He adds that New Zealand could turn its biomass into enough carbon-neutral biofuel to meet its renewable fuels requirement within ten years.

The IH2 technology which will be used is usefully reported on the Green Car Congress  website and on the website of the Gas Technology Institute which invented the process. CRI has the global sublicensing rights to the technology. Gerritsen describes it as world-leading. ”This is a robust and highly integrated technology package which can leapfrog other biomass to biofuel technologies because it goes straight to blended fuel stock and avoids intermediate pathways.” The process he regards as among the most economical for renewable hydrocarbon fuel production.

Aquaflow was initially focused on biomass conversion and started with algae as a feedstock for fuel. Its baseline now is multi-biomass conversion in which algae can be used wherever it is available as a feedstock. The inclusion of algae in a multi-biomass mix produces a long tail benefit in terms of achieving higher yields of diesel and jet fuel. Other feed stock can include wood waste, agricultural waste such as vine prunings, invasive weeds like gorse or broom and solid waste.

Importantly the process is self-sufficient. It can all happen on site. In simple terms, a road carrying in the feedstock, the factory on site, and a road out with the finished products ready to join existing infrastructure. Regional fuel refining has obvious advantages, and Gerritsen envisages the possibility of four regional refineries throughout the country producing up to 1 million litres of fuel a day (250,000 litres per refinery), or a total of 7,800 barrels of fuel per day.

The next step is money, and lots of it. Gerritsen is confident it will be there. It’s a viable technology, and it’s ready to go. It’s commercially competitive. It’s long-term infrastructure investment of a type which can attract good support.

We have to wait and see whether the needed investment is obtained and the venture made operational, but even at this stage the project is a cheering reminder of how much can be going on, little reported, in the exploratory area of renewable energy and with what encouraging prospects. It’s also a reminder that a small company in a small country can be a significant contributor on an international level. Even in a small country whose Government is more excited by exploration for fossil fuels than for renewable energy.

Renewable energy projects such as that pursued by Aquaflow have to demonstrate economic competitiveness against the benchmark of cheap fossil fuel, without fossil fuel being required to pay the cost of its damage to the climate and without any compensating subsidy being offered to clean energy for not adding to greenhouse gas pollution. The fact that renewable energy in a variety of forms is nevertheless beginning to emerge as economically competitive with fossil fuel is a testimony to the human inventiveness so crucial in the battle against global warming and also gives the lie to the claim that the cost of moving to a low-carbon economy will be crippling.

8 thoughts on “Aquaflow: next-gen biofuels a commercial reality”

  1. Good to know their progress, Bryan,
    You hit the nail on the head in emphasizing the un-level playing field of bio-fuels competing with fossil fuels that don’t have to meet their externalty costs. Oh for a real carbon price.

  2. If the biofuels are made from forestry waste then they will be actually paying for the carbon credits required to fell the trees. So the carbon price will be included in their inputs, but not that of their competitors.

    1. I thought they use the waste from felling operations that already sell their trees (carbon credits if any included in the price) so that waste from these operations should not have much of a carbon credit burden I would have hoped. But I shall stand corrected if its otherwise.

  3. Of course the comment about no subsidies for such innovations to help level playing fields and get them started is a comment specific to NZ. Aquaflow might need to become another economic refugee to find a more supportive environment. I hope not.

  4. How many hectares of this stuff are needed to fill a tank of petrol?

    I heard a figure that the amount of land required to make biofuel for a single tank of gas could feed a person for a year, so I’d like to see the figures for this technology.

    I’d also like to know how far from commercial reality they are, or is it just a small “proof of concept” project?

    1. Andys asks:

      How many hectares of this stuff are needed to fill a tank of petrol?

      That would depend on how much biomass is present either as waste or a crop.

      I did similar work in the early 80’s looking at agricultural waste, mostly straw, and sawdust. I quickly realized that feeding solid material into a high pressure reactor would be very problematic. A group at the University of Saskatchewan (Eager, Mathews and Pepper) tried that and had all sorts of problems going to a continuous system with aspen chips as feed stock.

      I decided to split the process into two, a simple pyrolysis step followed by high pressure hydrogenation (actually it was more de-oxygenation than hydrogenation). This allowed for production of low btu gas and char, both of which could be used in the process.

      Hydrogenation was done at medium pressure and temperature and used a low cost catalyst, probably the same one as the process described in this post.

      I was only able to do bench scale batch processes but we got preliminary yields of about 1 barrel of hydrocarbon per tonne of feed stock.

      The product was slightly heavier than diesel but completely miscible with either diesel or gasoline.

      I would be surprised if the process here differed greatly from these results.

      The mid 80’s was a bad time to be doing research on alternative fuels since the price of oil tanked at that time and there was no investor interest in following up on the process.

  5. “Importantly the process is self-sufficient”

    Well, it will be ‘self-sufficient’ if all the inputs like scratching sticks out of the tree-fell into piles then carting them to the process site are included.

    250,000 litres per day of output per refinery. That probably equates to at least 500 tonnes per day of inputs. At a density on the truck of around 0.4 (if you’re lucky – it will be fluff) and 75 cubic metres per truck you’re looking at 17 bin-truck loads per refinery per day. Do-able.

    Probably requires getting scrub and sticks off over a hectare a day = say 400 ha per year for sustained operation. There’s a lot of forest out there, but I wonder how much of it is accessible for gathering this sort of material? Its simple to fell and drag a log off a hill, a lot harder to pick up the pine cones from among the tree stumps!

    Four regional refineries yielding 7,800 bbl per day. NZ uses 160,000 bbl per day. So that’s about 5%. Frankly it will be useful but so little as to be not worth getting excited about. If there were another 19 such ideas in the pipe we would have some hope, but since its one of the few in sight, I don’t see it making enough difference to count.

    We would be better off investing the same effort in figuring out how to cope with less. Much less.

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