The world’s first commercially produced ethanol from municipal waste will be on sale by early 2011, according to Ineos, the privately-held chemicals group backing the technology.
Ethanol production from waste can avoid problems associated with today’s biofuels, such as competition for food crops and agricultural land. But the quantity of waste available is likely to mean that only a limited proportion of fuel demand can be met by this method.
Ineos hopes to have deals for the first commercial-scale plants producing ethanol from waste signed up “in the next three or four months”, according to Peter Williams, chief executive of its renewables business. Cities are likely to be the first partners to sign up, although industries that produce high volumes of organic waste are interested.
Ineos has been working with Bioengineering Resources Inc, a biotech company based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which has been developing the process. BRI has been running a very small demonstration plant, capable of producing about 150,000 litres of ethanol a year in Fayetteville. Ineos believes the process is ready to be scaled up to plants producing about 100,000-150,000 tonnes per year. A tonne of ethanol is roughly 1,250 litres.
The process works by taking organic waste, converting it into a gas and feeding the gases to bacteria that convert them to ethanol. Several companies are pursuing similar technologies. General Motors is backing Coskata, an Illinois-based company seeking to produce ethanol from organic wastes.
But Ineos expects that its plants will be the first able to use municipal waste as a feedstock when they come on stream, it hopes, in late 2010 or early 2011.
The costs of the process “stack up very well, and are cost competitive against any other approach to producing ethanol,” Mr Williams said. Two studies have suggested it saves 90 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by conventional petrol.
The logistics of securing waste to produce large volumes of fuel are challenging. It takes one dry tonne of organic waste to produce 400 litres of ethanol, Ineos says. The European Union creates about 65 million tonnes of organic municipal waste a year; enough to produce about 12 million tonnes of ethanol.
The EU’s target is to get to 10 per cent of its road fuel coming from biofuels by 2020. The market for petrol, which can be substituted by ethanol, is about 100 million tonnes a year, suggesting a demand for ethanol of 10 million tonnes per year, up from the 3 million tonnes supplied today.
That implies that, relying on the Ineos process alone, more than half of all the EU’s organic municipal waste would have to be used for fuel to meet the target.
Financial Times, 2008-07-21.