For centuries the world has agonized over its relationship with waste – by burying it, burning it, flushing it. But entrepreneurs at Fulcrum BioEnergy are now trying to turn it into jet fuel. Organic material like banana peels will be put into a vessel to decompose under pressure and heat, in a similar process to the creation of fossil fuels over hundreds of millions of years. The Californian start-up is investing $28om in a plant near Reno, Nevada, that, once fully operational, is expected to produce 10m gallons of renewable “syncrude” [synthetic crude] a year from organic material that would otherwise go to waste, which can then be refined into transportation fuel.
Its endeavor is being backed by oil and gas major BP, which committed $3om to Fulcrum in 2016 in the hope of stealing a march on rival producers whose biofuels are mostly produced from corn, sugar cane or vegetable oils. “If you want to decarbonize [the energy system], biofuels has a big role to play,” says Dev Sanyal, who is responsible for BP’s alternative energy business.
BP already has one of the world’s largest operated biofuels businesses, employing close to 6,000 people in three sugarcane processing units in Brazil. BP’s traditional biofuels business is commercially attractive and profitable, says Mr Sanyal, but his goal is to make other, more advanced, technologies such as bio jet fuel viable options. New innovations that enable biofuel production from non-edible plant waste material are seen as more sustainable and socially responsible, following a backlash against the use of food crops in the production of biofuels. “The question is how do you commercially produce these at scale,” says Mr Sanyal. More of the world’s oil and gas majors are now focusing their research and venture capital spending on attempts to expand production of more environmentallyfriendly liquid fuel stocks.
Exxon Mobil of the US, for example, is conducting research on how to create biofuels from algae. Most majors recognize that climate change policies will curb the upward trajectory in oil consumption in the coming decades. But they are also placing a bet on the continued demand for combustible fuels, particularly for heavy trucks and airplanes. This is because electric powertrains cannot normally compete with high energy-to-weight ratios delivered by combustible engines that are required for many modes of transport.