Rubbish is about to take off, thanks to BP’s interest in turning household waste into low jet fuel.
The chemical process behind the technology that can turn rotting organic matter into liquid fuels has been around 100 years. But, recent developments, including the use of ‘clever baked beans cans’, have transformed its commercial potential, leading BP-backed US start-up Fulcrum Bioenergy to use it to produce biojet fuel.
BP’s head of group research, Angelo Amorelli, explains: “BP first got interested in a technology called Fischer-Tropsch, or FT, in the 1980s while looking to turn gas into liquid fuel. But, with the roller coaster of oil prices, the project to develop the FT technology at our UK sites almost got shut down.
“The breakthrough came five or so years ago, when we started to explore the potential for our FT process to turn biomass into fuels,” he says.
It was then that BP, with its partner in the process, Johnson Matthey (JM), updated two vital parts of the technology. JM redesigned the reactors, creating ‘cans tech’, ”which, essentially, looked like baked beans cans that are filled with catalyst,“ Amorelli explains. ”BP then changed the recipe for the catalyst and, by combining that with the' baked beans' reactors, we trebled the productivity and halved the cost of building the technology compared to traditional FT reactors,“ he says.
The FT technology works by converting synthesis gas – a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide – generated from sources, such as municipal solid waste and other renewable biomass, into the sorts of long-chain hydrocarbon molecules that make up diesel and jet fuels. Fulcrum, a company in which BP has invested, has secured the first licence to the BP and JM technology, using it in their new Sierra BioFuels Plant located in Nevada, US.
The Sierra plant will be the first in the US to convert household garbage that would otherwise be landfilled, into a low carbon, renewable transportation fuel. When the plant begins commercial operation, planned for 2020, Sierra is expected to convert approximately 175,000 tons of household garbage into approximately 11 million gallons of fuel each year: equivalent to the fuel needed for more than 180 return flights between London and New York.
Amorelli says: “I’m so pleased our technology can help to deliver innovative low carbon fuels that can play an important role in the energy transition. We see this first licence as a stepping stone to other similar opportunities.”