A leading green energy scientist who uses bacteria to turn greenhouse gases into usable chemicals is calling for more investment from industry and government subsidies to scale up this newest of technologies.
Professor Nigel Minton from The University of Nottingham says there is significant potential for the industrial scaling up of the new process which uses ‘gas-eating’ bacteria to ferment polluting greenhouse gases from landfill and industry into useful products like biofuels and plastics.
A report, commissioned by Professor Minton’s BBSRC-funded network of gas fermentation specialists C1net, says the UK should do more to increase the production of this new technology which could capture a large percentage of industrial waste gas from our factories and landfill.
As the burden on global oil and natural gas resources increases to meet demand for energy, plastics and medicines, the University’s Synthetic Biology Research Centre has been engineering microorganisms to convert natural and waste gases into valuable chemical and fuel products.
The technology has been rolled out in commercial-scale demonstration plants in China and the US and could make a contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on fossil resources. However, there is currently little industrial development and use of the technology in the UK.
Professor Minton is calling for the biofuel subsidies currently given to biomass processors to be extended to the gas fermentation industry: “Gas fermentation can produce low carbon fuels from a range of waste feedstocks that do not pose the risk of increasing demand for land, like biomass production does. But the new technology is not competing on a level playing field.
“Fuels produced from renewable feedstocks are eligible under the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, but low carbon fuels produced from carbon-containing waste gases are currently not eligible to contribute towards the obligation, despite the greenhouse gas emissions reductions they can provide. This is proving a significant barrier to the commercial deployment of the gas fermentation processes. A broader and more encompassing framework is needed to increase the production of low carbon fuels in the UK. This could be achieved by focusing on the ultimate goal of lowering the greenhouse gas emissions of transport fuels, and supporting all low carbon fuels.”
The BBSRC C1net report makes several recommendations to government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the industry sector:
- Long term policy support for all low carbon fuels and products either through incentivising their use or disincentivising the use of fossil resources. This may be achieved, in part, through amendment of the RTFO, to include low carbon fuels made from non-biological waste feedstocks. Incentivising the use of all low carbon fuels according to the degree to which they reduce carbon emissions would provide an outcome-oriented approach, ensuring technology and feedstock neutrality.
- A framework whereby the production of chemicals and materials are not at a disadvantage to fuels where they lead to similar benefits. In the near term, there could be a role for public procurement in stimulating the market for products with renewable content or recycled carbon content. In the longer term this may be achieved with an appropriately defined carbon tax.
- Policy support aimed at increasing the availability of sustainable biomass resources, and/or further supporting the use of waste resources.
- Improved access to capital for all low carbon technologies, for example through the use of loan guarantees, or by including the technology platform in the priorities of publically-backed lenders.
- Targeted R&I support addressing specific technology challenges and scale-up.
Developers of new processes, both in academia and industry, must credibly assess the economic viability of these processes, ensuring that they understand the conditions in which the processes will be commercially viable. They must also take a proactive approach in communicating the benefits of new products and processes.
The full C1Net report is available here.
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK for research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.
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