A Los Altos, California-based biofuels company called NextFuels says it has found a way to convert a very specific—and very quickly growing—pile of trash into energy.
The waste NextFuels has focused on is that produced by the palm oil industry. According to a NextFuels press release, palm oil has recently surpassed soybean as the world’s dominant edible oil, and has exploded into a $30 billion industry. As a result of that growth, 120 million tons of difficult-to-dispose-of waste is produced annually, which farmers tend to burn in boilers or open fires, making for increasingly problematic air pollution that is attracting the attention of governments and NGOs.
But NextFuels’ founders say that thanks to a technology they’ve been developing at Shell Oil since the 1970s, they can convert the palm oil industry’s biomass into transportation and industrial fuels.
In the late 1990s, early funders of the technology included the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Shell Nederland, according to a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the company.
In a presentation at the Cleantech Forum in March, NextFuels chief scientist Ralph Overend said the company is now seeking $10 million in early-stage funding. Overend has spent 30 years as a research scientist, and this time includes a recent stint at the National Renewables Energy Laboratory. Two other co-founders and scientists on the team are Frans Goudriaan and Jaap Naber, both of whom spent more than twenty years as research scientists at Shell Labs in the Netherlands, and who started working on the biofuels conversion process while at the firm.
NextFuels’ process works via bio-liquefication, explains the press release, wherein the palm oil biomass is mixed with water and boiled at 330 degrees Celsius, while pressure is increased to 220 bar. Once it’s cooled, “the hydrocarbons form a putty-like substance called GreenCrude,” says the release. About a quarter of GreenCrude can be used as a solid fuel in industrial boilers, and the rest can be converted to a petroleum equivalent. The company’s statement adds that the palm plantation owners with whom NextFuels partners could stand to see a 30 percent boost to their properties’ real estate once they start converting their waste to biofuel.