US funding research to develop bioenergy crops

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced US$64 million in funding over three years for 25 university-led genomics research projects on plants and microbes for bioenergy and bioproducts. Fiscal Year 2019 funding for the projects totals US$25.4 million.

The plant research (12 projects totalling US$29 million) focuses on expanding knowledge of gene function in plants to be grown for bioenergy and bioproducts. The aim is to pinpoint the connection between specific regions of plant genomes and particular plant traits, so that features such as drought resistance and crop yield can be improved.

The microbe research (13 projects totalling US$35 million) aims at better understanding of how communities of microbes cycle nutrients in soil and the environment. In the process, the research is expected to shed light on soil processes that could impact the growth of potential bioenergy crops.

Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar said “This research will help us improve crops grown for bioenergy and bioproducts while at the same time deepening our knowledge of complex and interacting biological processes within specific environmental systems.”

Most of the projects are collaborations involving researchers from several institutions; many include one or more DOE national laboratories as partners.

Projects were selected by competitive peer review under two DOE Funding Opportunity Announcements, “Genome-Enabled Plant Biology for Determination of Gene Function” and “Systems Biology Enabled Research on the Roles of Microbiomes in Nutrient Cycling,” sponsored by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the Department’s Office of Science.

AcuComm’s WasteView database currently lists 130 active bioenergy projects which utilise non-waste plant biomass as feedstock, worth a total of US$13.0 billion or just under US$100 million each on average. Click here to explore them all.

 

Building Egypt’s new capital city

It’s not often that an entire capital city gets built from scratch, but Egypt is currently in the process of doing just that. In 2015, the government of Egypt announced that a new administrative capital would be built on previously undeveloped land to the south-east of the current capital, Cairo. Construction began in 2016.

We’re not just talking about a few office blocks here. The proposal is for a city of five to seven million people. As yet it has no name, other than the unofficial ‘New Administrative City’. A public competition is to be held this year, to decide a name. You can see the building work taking shape here. There has been heavy Chinese involvement in construction work, through the China State Construction Engineering Corp (CSCEC). The cost of constructing the new city is usually put at US$58 billion, but the final total is anyone’s guess.

Of course, a new city will generate waste. It’s an interesting planning question; if you are starting from scratch, what waste facilities would you build? It’s fair to say that Egypt to date has been at the more unregulated end of the waste management spectrum, but some thought has been given to the question regarding the new capital. This is, after all, meant to be a prestigious modern development and – ideally – will have infrastructure to match. In July 2019, the Egyptian Ministry of Housing, represented by the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA), signed a memorandum of understanding with FAS Energy for the construction of a number of new WtE plants in Egypt including in the new capital. Details on individual sites are not yet available, but the agreement is for a total of 100 MW capacity at a cost of US$300 million to US$500 million.

WtE is an obvious choice for city planners in a hurry. Plants can deal with large volumes of waste relatively easily and discreetly, and have the bonus of generating electrical power. But who is FAS Energy? It is a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian Fawaz Al-Hokair group, a major property development company. FAS Energy was founded in 2013, and initially concentrated on development of solar power projects in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan. It appears to be branching out into the WtE field in 2019, with the above-mentioned agreement and a second WtE proposal planned in Saudi Arabia itself. It is currently unclear what overseas partners FAS will work with on these projects, whether Western, Chinese, Japanese or a mixture of all three.

Quite when Egypt’s new capital will begin to operate is unclear. The first government officials are due to move from Cairo at some point in 2019. Then the main organs of government will follow, including the presidential palace, central bank and supreme court. A commercial district, named Capital Park, is also under construction. There’s a good recent article about it all here. Whether any of it will ever resemble the glossy architects’ plans is a moot point, but the move is not without precedent. Kazakhstan and Myanmar have created new capital cities in the past 20 years, and Brazil famously did it in the 1960s. The scale of Egypt’s new capital, however, is much greater a public undertaking, and the infrastructure requirements – including waste management – are commensurately challenging.

The decline of coal

Sandbag, the non-profit climate change think-tank based in Brussels and London has reported that coal generation in the EU collapsed by 19% in the first half of 2019, with falls in almost every coal-burning country.

According to Sandbag, half of the fall in coal use was accounted for by wind and solar, and half was replaced by switching to fossil gas. However, this analysis omits the inroads being made into coal consumption by biomass conversion projects. AcuComm has seven European coal-to-biomass power plant conversion projects listed in its WasteView Projects database, covering Selby and Ashington in the UK, Kalundborg in Denmark, Eemshaven in the Netherlands, Cordemais and Le Havre in France, and Konin in Poland. Earlier this month, Zespół Elektrowni Pątnów-Adamów-Konin SA (ZE PAK) announced that its supervisory board has accepted a detailed concept for the modernisation of the existing K7 coal boiler and turbogenerators at the Konin Power Plant with the creation of a second biomass-fired generating unit.

Sandbag notes that if this reduction in the use of coal continues for the rest of the year it will offset CO2 emissions by 65 million tonnes compared to last year, and reduce the EU’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 1.5%. Coal generation already had fallen 30% from 2012 to 2018. Nevertheless, even if these falls continue throughout 2019, coal generation is still likely to account for 12% of the EU’s 2019 GHG.

End of the road for Hertfordshire’s big WtE plans?

Efforts by Hertfordshire County Council to develop a new WtE plant suffered a major setback in July 2019, following the government’s refusal of planning permission for a 350,000 tonne, 33.5 MW facility adjacent to the Rye House Power Station at Ratty’s Lane, Hoddesdon, 22 miles to the northeast of London.

hertfordshire Source: Bing Maps/Ordnance Survey. Find the site’s location at 51.753265, 0.013762

Plans for the Hoddesdon plant were drawn up in 2016 and approved by the council in 2017. However, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) ‘called in’ the application in February 2018, meaning a public inquiry needed to be held. This took place in the summer of 2018. The process ended in July 2019 when the Secretary of State rejected the application. He cited two main reasons: firstly, there would be ‘significant adverse landscape and visual impacts’, and secondly, the road access to the site is considered insufficient for the proposed volume of heavy goods traffic the plant would generate. The complete published decision can be read here.

The decision also spells bad news for Veolia, as Hertfordshire council felt it had no option but to terminate its 2011 agreement with the company on 8th August 2019. The failure of the Hoddesdon plan follows an earlier rejection by the government of a similar WtE project to be built by Veolia at New Barnfield, just to the south of Hatfield and to the west of Hoddesdon. While the county council gave the site the go ahead in 2012, the government overturned this in July 2014. This decision was confirmed on appeal in July 2015 and the project was cancelled.

Hertfordshire’s fruitless search for additional waste capacity has therefore now been going on for nearly a decade. There is general agreement on the need to reduce waste sent to landfill and deal with waste more locally, and broad agreement that WtE is the best option. But there is no agreement on where such a site might be located.

The county has very little local waste disposal capacity, and therefore an historic reliance on landfill and sending waste to other parts of the country to be disposed of. While only around 26% of Hertfordshire’s residual waste is sent to landfill, the tonnage rose by 21% in 2017/18, to 64,112 tonnes. Most of the remainder is sent to WtE plants outside Hertfordshire.

hertfordshire-graph Source: Hertfordshire Waste Partnership,Annual Report 2017/18

The diagram below shows where Hertfordshire’s residual waste is sent. The only major disposal site in the county is the Westmill landfill, to the northwest of Ware. This is operated by Biffa. It opened in the 1980s and is, according to Biffa, one of the busiest landfills in the country, accepting around 500,000 tonnes of waste each year. The vast majority of this is, presumably, from outside Hertfordshire. Two other landfill sites are used: Bletchley in Buckinghamshire and Milton in Cambridgeshire. Both are operated by FCC Environment. Three WtE sites are used: Ardley in Oxfordshire, Edmonton in north London (itself the subject of ongoing and controversial redevelopment plans), and Greatmoor in Buckinghamshire.

hertfordshire-waste Source: Hertfordshire Waste Partnership Annual Report 2017/18, page 41

What happens next is unclear, although nothing is likely to develop in a hurry following the termination of the Veolia agreement. There appears to be no other site or partnership in the pipeline at present. Existing arrangements can be rolled forward, but before long the issue will need to be revisited. Hertfordshire County Council has noted that the collapse of the Hoddesdon plan ‘…leaves us with a substantial problem as we’re running out of options for dealing with the residual waste Hertfordshire currently produces, and with 100,000 new homes expected in the county in the next 15 years we urgently need more waste treatment capacity. In the short term we will have to continue transporting hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste to other parts of the country for treatment which is expensive and bad for the environment.’

Interestingly, while the Veolia plan has been terminated, Ratty’s Lane is a well-established site for waste plants. Firstly, a smaller private WtE facility is being built there. This is a 10 MWe gasification plant, to be powered not by municipal waste but by RDF from the commercial and industrial sectors. This too has been subject to a number of delays, although not in this case planning-related. Work began in 2015 and, according to its developer, Bioenergy Infrastructure Group, the plant is currently expected to be operational some time in 2019. Secondly, Biogen UK has a 3 MW AD plant powered by food waste there. This has annual capacity of 65,000 tonnes and became operational in 2016. As I’ve mentioned before, small may or may not be beautiful, but it is far less likely to fall foul of planning laws.

One for the future – Recycling space junk

Apparently there are about 22,000 large objects orbiting the Earth, including working and broken satellites and bits of old rocket from past space expeditions. Even worse, if you include all the equipment dropped by astronauts while floating in space and the debris from colliding satellites down to around 1cm in size, there are about one million bits of space junk in Earth’s orbit.

Jez Turner, a Teaching Associate in Foundation Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Nottingham in the UK, writing in The Conversation, informs us that a long-term solution is being proposed by The Gateway Earth Development Group. The Group is a collection of academics from universities around the world who propose turning this potential catastrophe into a resource. By 2050, Gateway Earth – a fully operational space station with a facility to recycle old satellites and other junk – could be up and running. This would reduce the potential for costly collisions between functioning satellites and debris (which could threaten communications, air navigation, meteorology etc.), as well as potentially providing a revenue stream for recycled materials and components.

Technology to clear up the estimated 7,000 tonnes of ‘junk’ currently in orbit is under development. One programme is the EU-sponsored RemoveDEBRIS; which is aimed at performing key Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstrations to find the best way to capture the space debris orbiting Earth. The consortium working on the programme includes the University of Surrey, Stellenbosch University, Airbus Defence and Space, Airbus Safran Launchers, SSTL, ISIS (Netherlands), CSEM (Switzerland) and Inria (France).

With the profusion of satellites being launched, Jez argues the need for a space equivalent of the plastics wake-up call that people received from Blue Planet 2. There is still time, but plans for cleaning up Earth’s orbit need to be acted on now.

The waste sector heats up: the role of pyrolysis

This week I thought I’d take a look at pyrolysis and its role in the waste sector. The technology is not new; essentially involving the deconstruction of waste or other matter through very high temperatures. While the overall numbers are small, it’s one of the more cutting-edge areas of waste management technology, with various patented approaches being developed. The following refers to projects in the AcuComm database where we can identify use of pyrolysis technology in some form. Related technologies such as gasification are not included.

AcuComm currently lists 90 projects which involve pyrolysis. The majority are not yet operational, however. Of the 90, 18 are either known to be on-hold or of uncertain status in some way. Only 23 are currently known to be operational, equal to 26% of the total. Interestingly, that percentage drops to 12% in terms of project value, suggesting that most of the operational activity to date is in smaller pilot projects.

andy-1

Pyrolysis projects cut across a number of AcuComm’s facility type categories. The bulk involve general disposal of waste. One example is a new clinical waste disposal facility in Avonmouth, near Bristol, UK, which went into operation in July 2018.

Recycling is also significant, particularly of rubber or plastics. A recent example is a planned plastics recycling plant in Perth, Scotland. Recycling Technologies Ltd plans to use its RT7000 pyrolysis technology to turn waste plastics into oil form, which can then be used to make new plastic projects. The site is relatively small, with capacity for 7,000 tonnes of waste plastic per year, but is expected to be operational by the end of 2019. A pilot plant is already operating in Swindon, Wiltshire.

The largest number of pyrolysis projects are to be found in the USA and UK, which between them account for 29 active projects, equal to 40% of the total. If only operational plants are considered, the USA has five, followed by the UK with three, and Australia, Germany and Spain with two apiece.

While other countries lack this mass of projects, significant potential investments can be found around the globe. One example is New Zealand, where the government issued a grant in 2017 for a pilot project for the disposal of used tyres through pyrolysis. This is currently ongoing, although its precise status is unclear. Additionally, a proposed WtE plant in Huntly, New Zealand, may also include some form of pyrolysis capacity. It is far from certain whether this will ever be built, although that has more to do with a general resistance to WtE plants in New Zealand rather than any specific objections to pyrolysis.

AcuComm lists around 98 companies (classified as operators, contractors or equipment suppliers) involved with pyrolysis projects. The USA is home to 29 of these, followed by 11 in the UK and 10 in Germany.

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AcuComm subscribers can easily explore and download the full data held on all these pyrolysis projects, including details on the companies involved, here.

Victoria’s Waste Crisis

A waste and recycling crisis in the Australian state of Victoria appears to be worsening week by week. Last week, one of the state’s major recyclers, SKM Recycling, was ordered into liquidation and this week Phoenix Environmental Group has been banned by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) from accepting rubbish at its Coolaroo facility.

SKM was contracted to process recyclables for more than 30 councils and started to run into difficulty when China imposed its ban on waste imports. With a throughput of 400,000 tonnes of recyclable material each year, SKM soon started accumulating stockpiles of waste. In July, the EPA ordered SKM to cease receiving materials at its Laverton North site, following concerns it had exceeded safe limits. The company’s difficulties have been spiralling, culminating in the Supreme Court appointing a liquidator and ordering the company to be wound up after it was unable to show it could repay debts of A$5.5 million.

The desperation to dispose of the rapidly growing stockpiles of waste has hit a new low just this week with the reported discovery that Phoenix Environmental Group was operating a massive illegal dump at an Altona warehouse and attempting to use an industrial incinerator to dispose of around 6,000 cubic metres of recyclable plastic in an alleged bid to escape enforcement action by the local council and the Environment Protection Authority.

Unsurprisingly, Victoria’s waste management system is under great strain, with at least 15 councils reportedly forced to dump paper, glass and cans in landfill until alternative processors can be found.

Shanghai shifts to WtE

In China, Shanghai recently opened a second phase of what may well be the largest WtE plant in the world. The Laogang Renewable Resource Recycling Centre is located near the city’s airport in the Pudong New Area. It is next to the Laogang landfill, which has been operating for 30 years and is nearing the end of its capacity. Phase one of the site opened in 2013. You can see the exact location of the site here. Note that the current google map dates to October 2018 and shows phase two under construction.

The new second phase was begun at the end of 2016 and officially opened at the end of June 2019. It can handle up to 6,000 tonnes per day, equal to one third of all the waste generated by the city. This takes the site’s overall capacity to 8,750 tonnes per day, or around three million tonnes per year. Power generation from the plant is estimated to reach 144 MW.

This makes the Laogang site by some margin the largest WtE site in the world. It is large even by Chinese standards; according to analysis of the AcuComm database, the average WtE project in China has an annual capacity of 1,543 tonnes per day. How does this compare internationally? AcuComm lists a few pipeline projects in Kuwait, Singapore and Turkey, each with annual capacity of around one million tonnes. None are currently operational, however. The largest wholly-new plant to begin operating in Europe in recent years is in Poolbeg in Ireland, which opened in 2017 and has capacity of around 600,000 tonnes per year; one third the size of the new expansion at Laogang.

Shanghai is arguably the largest city in the world, with around 26 million people. So it is not surprising that such a huge plant is seen by the city authorities as a good solution to rising waste levels and near-exhausted landfill capacity. On a related note, the past month has also seen a new law come into force which requires Shanghai residents to sort their waste into four broad types before disposal. It clearly makes sense for better pre-sorting of waste if the city is to move to a predominantly WtE solution rather than landfill. The measure is coercive – fines can be levied on those failing to comply – and it remains to be seen how effective the law will be in practice. But that’s a subject for another day.