A group of entrepreneurs is planning to revive a near-forgotten piece of First World War biotechnology and use it to produce industrial chemicals from domestic and commercial waste on England's Teesside.
The company, called Solvert, will use biological fermentation processes developed in 1916 to produce renewable n-butanol, acetone, hydrogen and electricity from wet biodegradable waste, which other new industries such as waste-to-energy plants cannot use effectively.
Solvert chief executive Kris Wadrop said that the biological process was very successful in its time, producing chemicals from cheap sugar feedstocks for the munitions industry and later for industry in general. He added that while it was mostly superseded in the 50s and 60s by even cheaper petrochemical processes, now that oil is so much more expensive it is time to return to that older technology.
“Our products will be cheaper to produce, our process breaks even at about $20-$25 per barrel of oil, and oil hasn't been that cheap in ages,” he said. “Plus our products will have that 'green' badge - the current drive within the UK is to divert waste away from landfill into more productive uses.” He added that while acetone and n-butanol are widely used in the plastics and paints industries, there is no domestic production of either.
Having demonstrated the technique on real feedstocks in the laboratory, Solvert has raised £200,000 in proof-of-concept funding, including £100,000 from a fund managed by Northstar Ventures, and grants from Business Link and the North East Process Industry Cluster.
The company is now working with the UK's Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) at Wilton to trial its process at industrial level. Wadrop said that the plan is to start building a “£100m full-scale manufacturing plant in about two years time.” The company is looking at several sites in the Teesside area, where many of its potential customers are.
“We are a renewable chemicals production company, not a technology licensing company,” he said. He noted that Solvert's technology is essentially an industrial-scale brewery of sorts, taking waste through multiple biological processes. First it converts the waste into biomass, then ferments that into mixed sugars and finally converts those to useful chemicals.
Wadrop said that, with expertise drawn from waste management, biotech and chemicals, Solvert's aim is to bring together industrial sectors that normally have little or no direct contact or communication.
“Our focus is on biodegradable waste, not cellulosic biomass, so we want the organic element of municipal and commercial or industrial waste, their compositions are typically comparable,” he added. “Both sectors currently send around 50 per cent of solid waste to landfill.”
He noted that using waste as the feedstock - rather than biomass, as much of the bioethanol industry does - not only means there is no need to divert land away from food production, but it also requires less additional infrastructure. “Waste is already collected, centralised and sorted,” he explained. “It's much greener than growing stuff specially and then trucking it to a factory.”
“This is an exciting project which could have a very positive regional and environmental impact,” added Dr Stephen Price, proof-of-concept manager at Northstar.