Biomass blossoms, published in The Daily Telegraph
Published in The DailyTelegraph
When jewellery retailer Gerald Ratner famously said his earrings "cost about as much as a Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich, and last about as long," he soon found himself out of a job. These days, however, he could have been complimenting the longevity of his products.
The humble prawn sandwich will soon be among the foodstuffs that M&S feeds into its anaerobic digester, as the company pursues its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2012. This process uses naturally-occurring bacteria to break down the food waste and turn it into biogas, which in turn can be used to produce renewable electricity or directly burned, as a substitute for natural gas. M&S plans to use this fuel to heat its shops, offices and distribution centres.
Biogas is just one of the family of biomass materials derived from plants and animals, either from new, renewable sources such as crops and forestry products, and waste from agriculture or food production. Among the many actual and potential uses of biomass are electricity production, fuel for vehicles (even planes) and heat for homes and businesses.
The UK government has put its weight behind a major expansion in biomass production, and will shortly bring out an Energy White Paper entitled 'the UK Biomass Strategy, including plans to accelerate growth in anaerobic digestion facilities and recategorise 'digestate' (food waste) as a product rather than as waste. As in many areas of waste management, we can now begin to treat old prawn sandwiches as an asset rather than a liability.
Countries including Brazil and the US have already taken major steps towards biomass production, with many thousands of Brazilian cars running on ethanol - a form of biofuel derived from plants, producing significantly less pollution than petrol cars. Fields of plants such as algae, which typically has an oil content of more than 50 per cent, could soon be a common sight.
If your car has been properly adapted, it can run on ethanol, biodiesel, vegetable oil or even waste vegetable oil from restaurants etc. All are less polluting than petrol, although there are some issues to watch out for. Because biodiesel is a stronger solvent than regular diesel it dissolves accumulated sediment in your tank and pipes, so you may need to change the filter after first using it. It will also corrode any rubber pipes, so you'd need to replace these with nylon ones. Because it freezes easily, you should mix some regular diesel in during the winter. But once up and running, biofuels are cleaner and make your engine run more smoothly (Lotus have managed to produce a biofuel car that can do 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds!)
Large scale biomass production will soon be a reality in the UK after several years of disappointing results. German-owned energy company E.ON is building its first dedicated biomass power station in Lockerbie, Scotland, at a cost of #85 million, producing 44MW per year and employing up to 300 people when it opens later this year. The company claims that it will produce enough power to supply 70,000 homes and displace 140,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases that would result if fossil fuels were used instead.
"Biomass is a carbon neutral fuel with huge potential for both electricity generation and for UK farmers growing the crops we burn," says Jason Scagell, director of E.ON UK Renewables. "The UK represents an ideal market for us because of government policy to increase the amount of power generated from sustainable sources." Besides biomass, E.ON is investing in wind, tidal and wave power generation.
As with any dramatic change of direction, the move from oil and gas to biofuels has its problems. The Environment Agency has raised several concerns over the potential impact of mass cultivation of crops for biomass, such as increased levels of pesticides and unsustainable farming practices. But as the world continues to run out of oil and gas, and their price continues to rise (along with the earth's temperature), the future for biomass production looks as tasty as a fresh prawn sandwich.