Capturing the Invisible

Gina Castell investigates Research Encompassing Both Old and New Power through discussions with Professor Mohamed Pourkashanian

Reducing CO2. One of the big climate change challenges.
Most CO2 in the air comes from power plants and transport. A way of reducing this CO2 has now been discovered and is being developed for the commercial stage, where we capture and store it, using carbon capture technology. When we use Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS or bio-CCS), the CO2 level emissions from power generation actually fall to net negative emissions. This just means that we’re capturing more CO2 than we’re releasing to the atmosphere.  When fossil fuels are burnt, carbon capture technologies are able to capture around 90% of the CO2 produced. This figure changes however when we consider emissions from mining and transporting the fuel. So this all adds up to produce higher CO2 emissions.
When we use sustainably produced biomass, the CO2 levels balance out between what is produced and what is captured – and so it can become ‘neutral’ or near zero. CO2 is absorbed by plants when they grow, so when we capture the CO2 produced from their combustion, we can achieve net negative CO2 emissions: Basically emitting lower CO2 than we produced in the first place – and removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Last year, COP21 (the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris) set targets to tackle climate change. Every government committed to prevent a temperature increase of 2 degrees in the next 20 years. If the COP21 targets are to be met, then using ‘carbon capture technology and storage enabling technologies’ is essential. There’s no other technology out there that’s ready to be used globally. Carbon capture is the only way.
What the project is trying to do is to look at biomass to generate power. In other words, if we burn biomass, there is much less CO2. So using carbon capture technology with this makes generating power much more sustainable. This technology acts as a bridge between the two types of power, between conventional power and sustainable power, like wind and solar.
Biomass allows us to keep using conventional fuels in the future, but without the CO2 emissions. Countries can continue to rely on fossil fuels, as well as on a mixture of other power sources. So carbon capture makes things more flexible and increases national energy security.
A lot of work has been done on carbon capture from coal, but not so much from biomass. Researchers need to look at the problems we’ll encounter, so there’s a close relationship between industry and academics to see what the issues are.
The biggest obstacle is cost. Carbon capture means electricity costs will increase. Are customers happy to pay extra to mitigate climate change? Do people decide to reduce CO2 emissions? Or do we simply forget about climate change? These are just a few of the questions that pop up, not just with carbon capture, but with all renewable energy technologies.
At the moment, many companies are working on carbon capture from fossil fuels, but have been slow to embrace BECCS. It’s a large international community, involving the UK, US, China, India, South Africa, Mexico and more. In the future, the project hopes to broaden the biomass – from the more typical forestry residue, like branches, to include recycled material, like wood planks and other material which otherwise would have to be landfilled.
In a nutshell, the project is trying to ‘keep the lights on’ using biomass rather than coal, and capture the CO2.
Carbon Capture Technology is the bridge between old and new power.  So let’s march across the bridge! and make our way towards that COP21 target.
Words by Gina Castellheim.

Sugar, Oh Honey Honey. You Are My Candy Girl…Or Should I Say Energy Girl?

Although The Archies were definitely talking about sweet treats, Gina Castell talks to Miriam Röder about hub research using the sweet stuff for its own purposes.

Sugarcane, a common plant in South Africa. It’s known as a cash crop, because people earn cash with it (if you hadn’t already guessed). Sugarcane is mainly used to make sugar, but also bioenergy. When people talk about sugarcane bioenergy, people think of the biofuels that are used to run cars, like bioethanol. However, discussions have raged over issues of food fuel, from how the land is used to whether the land should even be used for fuel over food.
But we’ve missed something here. A sharp, pointy something. People seem to have overlooked what’s left once the sugar is gone. The remains.
When all the sugar has been collected from the sugarcane, farmers burn the sugarcane fields to get rid of the residue. The residue is made up of long, spikey leaves. The great thing is we can actually use these leftover leaves, instead of just burning and creating pollution.
(Burning sugarcane field)
Most sugarcane in the world comes from Brazil. Brazil has been making bioethanol for decades, so bioenergy from sugarcane is not new. Brazil even has cars that run on 100% bioethanol, not a drop of fossil fuels! Countries like the US have been buying bioethanol for a long time. The residue on the other hand is new territory. When people talk about using sugarcane as bioenergy, they talk about the cane, not so much the leaf.
The idea is to grow sugarcane as normal, for sugar in South Africa, but to just start thinking about bioenergy as an add on to this. So tweaking what currently goes on to include the sugarcane leaf. This is what ‘bioenergy integration pathways’ is.
This is a science project, but very much a social one too. It will open new opportunities for sugarcane growers in South Africa. Most growers are poor and only grow sugarcane for sugar. But using the leaf to produce energy in the future could see their incomes rise. Handing the leaf to bioenergy operators or even owning their own bioenergy equipment, bringing energy to the local community, could bring in more money. The extra energy, which they didn’t have before, could also be sold on.
At the moment, the plan is to spread ideas about what can potentially be done. Just getting people on board and getting them to start thinking about other options is a milestone. It’s all about trying to overcome unsustainable processes in sugar production, but also empowering grower communities and improving their energy access.
The project faces many obstacles. When speaking to locals, the biggest challenge they face is irrigation (pumps watering plants) as the pumps are poorly maintained. Climate change doesn’t help, as droughts and heavy rainfall cause further damage to the pumps. Crime means pumps get stolen and people feel unsafe irrigating at night. So there are social obstacles to overcome in South Africa, not just technology and economics.
How this project evolves really depends on the future of the sugar market. The price of sugar continues to fall lower and lower, which makes growing sugar harder. It might be that our diets change, or that sugar mills no longer see the point in producing sugar, or maybe something completely new is done with sugar residue as making materials from bio-based stuff becomes more and more popular. Who knows? It’s hard to say. We’re pretty sure sugarcane doesn’t end with sugar though.
To the question of spreading research worldwide, Mirjam explains that you can try, but different communities work differently. For instance, there was the plan to bring Brazilian technology to Mozambique, Africa, but it failed because of political and social problems. The project knows that you need to be very sensitive, especially with poor communities, with how you introduce bioenergy.
There are many roads to take with sugarcane, to do something else aside from sugar, so lets branch out. If one thing’s for certain, its that sugarcane leaf is not waste and can be used for bioenergy.
After all, one mans trash is another mans treasure.
Words by Gina Castellheim

This Glasgow project turns your concept of control inside-out

Gina Castell explains why.

‘What goes up, must come down.’ – Isaac Newton.

The famous quote resonates with the project ‘Real Time Control of Gasifiers’, albeit with a few tweaks. The idea behind the project is what goes in, must come out: by controlling what we put into the gasifier, we can control what gas comes out of it. The project is about finely tuning the bioenergy apparatus, so it will run better and give off better quality gas, reducing harmful emissions once and for all.

Why so controlling?

Not all biomass is exactly the same, like how no two humans are exactly the same. Different biomass have a different make-up, so they create different products (varying gas, tar, ext.). Biomass is also seasonal. In one season you find one biomass, and in another season you find another, just like seasonal fruit and veg. To deal with this, it’s necessary to control the gasifier so it works with all the different types of raw material, come summer or winter.

A year since starting up, the project has looked at the need for temperature control. When temperature is controlled inside the gasifer, we control the product gas it creates. The project also looks at how balancing the air to fuel ratio helps give off better gas.

However, control is influenced by results from experimentation. The project mainly experiments with Miscanthus, a plant biomass, in the UK. There is also experimentation with control techniques, as we need something to measure, and the idea is to develop cheap ways to monitor tar. Two techniques being used are flame analysis and fluorescence. In flame analysis, if we put oil on a flame, it changes from blue to yellow. So we can see how much tar is in the gas simply by looking at the colour of the flame. However, fluorescence is not so easy. The gasifier is loaded with all sorts of things, all emitting different wavelengths. As a result, the researchers need to be selective with the wavelengths they decide to detect for tar.

Tar creates a sticky situation, clogging up pipes in the apparatus. The danger is that when this ‘unclean’ gas is used in gas turbines, the tar will get stuck to the turbine blades, reducing the effectiveness of aero-energy. To remove this danger, we simply optimise the temperature so less tar is produced.

In short, the goal is to reduce harmful emissions. A controlled system, one that is finely tuned to work with all sorts of biomass, will giveway to a new and improved gas. If we can get better quality gas, we can reduce emissions. Simple.

So we’re one step closer to a cleaner atmosphere.

Time to take control and embrace the wonder gas!

Words by Gina Castellheim

Searching for the new ‘fossil fuel’

Gina Castell collects bite-size version of innovate hub research going on at Newcastle. Find out how Professor Adam Harvey searches for the new ‘fossil fuel’ of the world.

The ‘Gasification Integration’ SuperGEN project at Newcastle is a trailblazer, paving the way with its innovative methods and shaping our bioenergy future. But already confused by the title? Here’s a quick low down of what’s going on in the lab.
Biomass is organic material that can be used for energy, from wood to plants to manure, even garbage!
Integrated gasification is when biomass is turned into a gas. This is done inside a gasifier, and the end result is cleaned product gas. Tar is a big issue here as it contaminates the product gas. Tar needs to be removed from the gas, so it is ‘clean’ and ready to generate power, to produce chemicals, hydrogen, gasoline and ammonia. Every step of this gasification takes place inside the equipment. So for the steps we have collection (of the organic stuff), pyrolysis (a fancy word for decomposition under high temp.) and gasification.
What’s the deal with integrated biomass gasification?
It’s an important step, not only in power generation, but also in turning biomass to products. The idea is to replace what currently happens, which is a chemical process that heavily relies on fossil fuels with biomass. It tackles the shortage of energy problem, which will inevitably happen. So it’s a pretty big deal. We currently use fossil fuels but they are quickly used up, like petroleum. So it’s a question of finding an organic energy source, so people use biomass and convert it into energy. Imagine a future where fossil fuels are no longer used, we can use biomass to sustainably supply the worlds’ energy, totally eclipsing the bygone fossil fuel age.
Gasification is a sustainable way of getting our energy, because a) low energy costs means it’s a money saver, and b) less energy is wasted. So what are we waiting for?
A big challenge with this is tar removal. Tar builds up inside the equipment and gets stuck inside the pipes. This creates a sticky situation, with the gas unable to be used until the tar is removed.
What has been discovered is a unique way of loosening the tar. Normally, tar is dealt with by using high heat and high pressure. However, the project has found that low energy plasma at room temp and atmospheric pressure does the trick. (Thunder is an example of plasma on Earth). The clean gas can then be used to make gasoline and generate power.
Right now, the knowledge is still new. But if we can industrialise this technology we can use it globally, not just in the UK. Some Asian countries already use biomass for heating, and it’s only a matter of time before biogas catches on all over the world, becoming the key sustainable energy source.
The message here is move over fossil fuels! There’s a new biogas sheriff in town.
By Gina Castellheim

Picking at the fine grains of the SUPERGEN Rice Straw Project, Southeast Asia.

Gina Castell in conversation with Prof. Patricia Thornley at Aston University, exposes the environmental issues, climate change benefits and social impacts.

The Rice Straw project in the Philippines is really about two things. Firstly, there is a really big problem with rice straw. Farmers only have a short amount of time before they need to grow the next crop. There isn’t enough time to let the straw degrade naturally so people take the shortcut and burn the rice straw instead, despite this being illegal. This leads to catastrophic pollution problems.

Rice straw burning happens all across Southeast Asia and India, not just the Philippines. A big part of what the project hopes to do is offer people alternatives, where waste rice straw can be quickly removed and the land freed for the next crop, without the massive pollution.

Energy access is also a big part of the project. At the moment, there are 1.2 billion people in the world with no access to clean energy. Although many have access to biomass material, most simply burn it for cooking fuel. If we can swap what goes on now for something much cleaner, then we can improve health and improve peoples lives.

Researchers believe that rice straw should be used as biomass for many purposes, including heat, light, cooking, manufacturing materials and transport fuel. Using biomass in this way leads to improved mobility, trade, educational opportunities and safer well-lit communities. This will transform rural areas and empower local people.

There is also the question of gender. Women in developing countries spend hours collecting firewood on a daily basis. But if rice straw were collected instead, the time spent and distance walked would be much less.

Expanding population in parts of the world comes as a warning. If people continue to collect firewood and use it inefficiently, deforestation will result. We are already struggling with deforestation, which is highly unsustainable for the planet. We’re not saying that all the rice straw could be used, but even if 20% could be harnessed, then we could get energy from that.

Prof. Thornley predicts that future global rice straw will occur in Vietnam and Southern India, particularly Punjab, where we see the biggest pollution problem from rice straw burning.

To sum up, the rice straw project is about resolving the environmental problem, whilst socially empowering developing countries through this new access to energy.

It’s an exciting time to be a rice farmer!


Words by Gina Castellheim