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Energy energy Organic

Carbon-negative fuel set: burning the world to a better place

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by: Sharai Hoekema
carbon negative fuel set  burning the world to a better place

A new fuel, made entirely out of elephant grass, recently made headlines after announcing to have developed a potentially major breakthrough solution in combatting climate change. The company is NextFuel, and their home base is Austria - and their fabrication process includes dried elephant grass that is fed into a sealed rotary drum. 

It was officially presented at the COP24 climate summit in Poland, aiming to help countries in their  attempt to decarbonise their heavily polluting industries, including the transportation and heat sectors.

How is NextFuel made?

NextFuel, as the product is called as well, is made by dried elephant grass that is put in a sealed rotary drum. At this stage, all oxygen is removed and the material will be divided into fuel and waste. This only takes some thirty minutes. All waste (mainly gasses) is re-used in the manufacturing plant for the generation of heat of power locally.

After that, the fuel part is densified and pressed into briquettes. Next, they will be moved to a cooler. At that stage they are ready to be sold and used in the production of heat or electricity. NextFuel says that these briquettes are perfectly suitable for use in a coal plant, even without having to significantly alter the processes or machines used. 

What are the benefits of NextFuel?

The main difference? This form of fuel is nowhere near as polluting as the ones that are typically used in coal plants. Or as NextFuel’s chief executive, mr Stefano Romano, proudly claimed: “For the first time in the history of mankind, we have the ability to produce a cheap and clean copy of fossil fuel.”

In an interesting example, NextFuel has calculated that if a cement factory runs on coal-fired power and heat, having this replaced by their alternative fuel will lead to a massive reduction in their annual carbon footprint of 105%. And no, this is not a typo and we do know how percentages work - it will actually render the process carbon negative.

Romano explained the workings of this: “Elephant grass needs a lot of CO2 to grow, and also stores some of this in its roots below ground. In that way, it captures so much carbon from the atmosphere that it can make our entire process carbon-negative in a matter of months.

The importance of cleaner fuels

Stern warnings that we will not hit the targets as set in the Paris climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals have already been given. A large portion of this shortfall can be attributed to the lack of progress made in these highly pollution transportation and heat sectors. This requires quick action on the side of companies active in these industries. 

Thankfully, quite a few of them have taken up the challenge. Take British Airways, proponent of the widely polluting aviation industry. They came up with the Future of Fuels challenge, that offers a £25,000 prize to those who come up with an innovative, low-carbon jet fuel; that is capable of powering a long-haul commercial flight for up to 300 customers, while generating no or negative emissions.

BA is also working together with the renewable fuel startup Velocys, with the ultimate goal of finding a jet fuel that can be made from household waste, killing two birds with one stone: recycling effectively and cutting back on emissions.

Their competitor Virgin Atlantic is working on similar initiatives, including one that fuels jets with recycled industrial waste gases. It is a low-carbon alternative, co-developed by the innovative firm LanzaTech, that has the capacity to partially power a commercial flight from London to Orlando, Florida. In doing so, it cuts back 70% of its emissions when compared to regular jet fuel.

Where will it lead?

The signs are promising, with various large polluters clearly taking their responsibility and doing their part in creating a fuel that will reduce, if not completely remove, their carbon footprint. As for NextFuel, they are facing a bright - and clean - future as well: production of their innovative clean fuel has been scaled up, following funds received from the European Union. 

After that, NextFuel is hoping to power its first two large-scale projects at the end of next year - a cement plant in Africa, and a manufacturing facility in South America. If those implementations are successful, expectations are that a large number of facilities and producers will move to these kind of fuels. Not only will it help them meet the stringent targets set, it will also clean up their production in a significant manner. Reason enough to give the elephant grass a try.

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