Biomethane is big news lately. In the United Kingdom, a reported 1 million homes are now using what they call “green gas” from farm and food waste for heating and cooking. There are 60 biomethane plants now in the UK, according to The Guardian. And according to the Green Gas Certification Scheme, the number of homes supplied with green gas has leapt 13-fold since 2017. Campaigners say it could supply as many as 10m UK homes by 2050.
The anaerobic digestion of food leftovers could cover a third of the gas or power demand in the UK and create 35,000 new jobs, according to the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA).
But it goes beyond the UK. Beyond Europe. Beyond the cow.
Biomethane – what is it?
First, let’s make sure we aren’t confusing biogas with biomethane. Biogas is mostly methane and carbon dioxide but that doesn’t mean it’s biomethane. You see, biogas is produced from organic matter breaking down in the absence of oxygen, but biomethane is biogas that has been upgraded to a methane concentration of 90% or more and is more similar to fossil natural gas thus making it useful for the usual natural gas markets (transportation, electricity, etc.).
Feedstocks are aplenty for biomethane. Some facilities use food waste, some use animal manure from cows and chickens, some use agricultural waste, some use landfills.
Biomethane can be used in so many markets it can make your head spin. It can be used for transport fuel, for electricity, as a feedstock for plastic chemicals and source for methanol, ammonia, acetic acid formaldehyde, and a s a source for renewable hydrogen, too. If there ever was a wonder drug, biomethane could be it in some ways. Heck, the process of converting biogas to biomethane often produces digestate which even that nasty fibrous residue waste product can be handy as a feedstock for biofuel production and innovative fiber building materials. Waste not, want not, right?
The biomethane market
The biomethane market is expected to grow. According to a recent market research report, “the global biomethane market gas has witnessed massive traction in the recent past and has attracted a number of new companies, making the competitive dynamics highly dynamic and competitive. The market has seen a large number of companies upgrading their production technologies and capacities in order to stay ahead of the competition.” The report by Transparency Market Research forecasts the global biomethane market to reach a valuation of US$2,624.5 mn by 2025 increasing from US$1,485.4 mn in 2016 at a CAGR of 6.7% between 2017 and 2025.
Possibly the most interesting development recently is using biomethane for the synthesis of chemical building blocks like CO, syngas or H2. The team of Prof. Marin at Ghent University recently developed the so called super-dry reforming approach which is a very efficient way to convert CO2 into CO upon reaction with methane. This CO can be used as a feedstock for the synthesis of platform molecules.
Biomethane in action
Ok, so it’s going to grow…a lot. What about now? Honestly, we can barely keep up with biomethane news that seems to come out so frequently. Here are some highlights:
Montreal’s city government announced last week that they are banning heating oil soon which affects 50,000 households and is making companies like Energir, which supplies natural gas, look at biomethane gas in a whole new light.
As reported in The Digest in April, Quantum Fuel Systems is teaming up with Quantitative BioSciences on pipeline for a dairy biogas project. QBI, with funding from the California Energy Commission, has partnered with the family owned and operated Fiscalini Cheese Company in Modesto, California, to develop a biofuels production facility that will purify and compress the biomethane from anaerobic digesters into vehicle fuel. Adding to the environmental benefits of the project, simple raceway algae ponds will be used to clean the farm’s wastewater, consume the carbon dioxide from the biogas, and grow renewable algae biomass to supplement the feed for the farm’s cows.
In California, Aemetis started permitting and construction of a multi-dairy renewable biomethane digester cluster, as reported in The Digest in February.
In New York, Energy Vision filed testimony with the New York State Legislature making the case for including biomethane made from organic waste as a renewable energy source in the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), as reported in The Digest in March.
Even Bloom Energy touted it’s recent 50-kilowatt demonstration of electricity generation on-site from landfill biomethane as a key accomplishment in their quarterly report.
Just a few weeks ago, as reported in NUU, in Turkey, Episome Biotech is developing a fermentation technique that digests paper waste and turns it into useful products such as biogas, biofuel, and fertilizer. The company uses enzymes to break down tough cellulose fibers into smaller sugars, which microbes ferment into the final product. Episome plans to expand its technology to the industrial scale this year, and is in talks with potential industrial partners to achieve this. The company also aims to raise a Series B round in 2020 to fuel the commercialization of its technology.
German biogas plant manufacturer WELTEC BIOPOWER started building a biomethane plant near Pontefract, West Yorkshire, UK for . The client is Lanes Farm Energy, a gas-to-grid project developed by Aqua Consultants and is expected to go live in late 2019, according to Water World.
Eni in Italy has been all over it for a while. They signed an MoU with Pertamina in February, as reported in The Digest, to collaborate and explore opportunities for waste transformation processes and biomass valorization processes, waste-to-fuel, waste-to-hydrogen, sewage sludge conversion into biomethane production by anaerobic digestion, advanced biofuels from biomass, and chemicals from biomass.
Eni also signed an agreement with Veritas, a multiutility that collects, recycles and treats waste in the 51 Municipalities of the metropolitan area of Venice, to ascertain how industrial projects could transform waste from urban collection into energy. The working group will design the industrial plants to produce biomethane, bio oil and hydrogen.
In particular, their work will focus on the design of a treatment plant for residues of plastic materials, aiming to produce hydrogen, and a treatment plant for organic materials to produce biomethane. Plans to construct plants to supply biomethane to Veritas to fuel the company’s vehicles are also underway. The agreement also foresees that the multi-utility vehicles will soon be powered by Eni Diesel+ fuel, produced at the Eni biorefinery in Venice using an ever-increasing share of exhausted vegetable oils, and tested since April by all the city’s public transport watercraft.
And in April, as reported in The Digest, Eni signed another agreement, this time with the Italian Biogas Consortium to promote the production of advanced biomethane from animal waste, agro-industrial byproducts and dedicated winter crops for use in the transport sector. Eni is targeting the collection of around 200 million cubic meters of biomethane, which can be produced by CIB members, through the consolidation of methane generated and produced in agricultural and livestock farming processes.
Just last week, the Scottish Government and Zero Waste Scotland are working on ensuring that unavoidable household food waste is recycled, with a new Food Waste Reduction Action Plan (FWRAP). This brings an opportunity for more AD plants to be built, particularly near urban areas, explains Chris Negus, Business Development Manager at Privilege Finance. “It presents a great opportunity for farmers, landowners and businesses to get involved with AD, to help decarbonise the Scottish economy, while also reducing the environmental impact of food waste,” adds Chris.
Spain is working on a biomethane project with auto manufacturer SEAT, Belgium’s first biomethane was produced in Bright Biomethane system back in December 2018, making it a double first for Bright Biomethane: the first project in Belgium and the first biomethane plant of the country. The biomethane system uses membrane technology to upgrade the biogas to 91 Nm3 biomethane per hour, equivalent to the annual natural gas consumption of 350 households. Ireland added renewable gas into the country’s gas network for the first time last year as reported in NUU in August 2018. In France, SUEZ, through its subsidiary SERAMM, now has a biomethane production and injection plant, produced from wastewater treatment process. The list can go on and on…
Even with all these companies and facilities that are already producing biomethane, it doesn’t mean we hit a peak at all. Interestingly, research and investment continues to flow into biomethane innovation too. Just last week, United Kingdom-based Loughborough University was awarded £200,000 for two projects which aim to make the transport sector more environmentally friendly. One of which is focused on algae-based biomethane fuel purification and carbon sequestration. The project aims to develop and assess an innovative process for the simultaneous production of high-purity biomethane as a potential natural gas vehicle fuel, together with the sequestration of remaining biomass and biogas carbon into algal co-product and biochar.
So what does all this say about biomethane? Is it the wave of the future? Is it the Holy Grail? Is it the flying unicorn? If there is one thing we do know, it’s that biomethane is hot, hot, hot.
Even if achieving low carbon technologies is why we are seeing the recent jump in biomethane, we don’t think that’s the only reason. It just makes sense plan and simple. It’s taking waste and doing something valuable with it. It’s replacing a non-renewable fossil fuel product (fuel, plastic chemical, electricity, etc.) with something that is considered renewable. And for those reasons, we see a promising future for it.