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World's First Carbon-Negative Fuel to be Unveiled at COP24

Images credit: NextFuel

Next week, at the COP24 climate summit in Poland, a Swedish startup is set to unveil what it hails as the world's first carbon-negative fuel.

NextFuel briquettes


Cleantech startup NextFuel will introduce a new energy solution made from a rapidly renewable form of biomass that is not only carbon-negative, but also cheap, profitable, easily scalable, and can be used in existing energy infrastructure. The miracle fuel is made from elephant grass — a unique type of grass that can grow up to four meters in just 100 days, producing several crops to harvest each year (a benefit over wood biomass, which needs decades to grow and requires many times that same land area); the grass also stores roughly 20 percent of the CO2 in the roots in the soil.

Once the grass is harvested, NextFuel’s technology requires very little energy to transform it into a briquette. Though it may seem counterintuitive, NextFuel says that less CO2 is released into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned than was captured from the atmosphere while the grass was growing; on a yearly basis, the carbon cycle becomes negative.

“For the first time in the history of mankind, we have the ability to produce a cheap and clean copy of fossil fuel,” NextFuel CEO Stefano Romano told edie. “Elephant grass needs a lot of CO2 to grow, and also stores some of this in its roots below ground. In that way, it captures so much carbon from the atmosphere that it can make our entire process carbon-negative in a matter of months.”

NextFuel says that, although its reactor can use both wood and several different types of energy crops — including wheat straw, maize stover and even bamboo — the key is to produce energy from a crop that is fast-growing on land not suitable for food production, while capturing as much CO2 from the atmosphere as possible. 

As the company asserts on its website: “By succeeding in getting it to work on fast-growing, carbon-rich plants like elephant grass and bagasse (waste from sugarcane), we can produce an infinite amount of clean, renewable energy. We can produce our fuel with consistent high quality, and are able to produce at a cost that can compete with fossil fuels, thereby giving mankind a clean, cost-effective alternative to burn. 

“With this process, we can capture so much CO2 from the atmosphere that we can reverse global warming with a natural and profitable form of carbon capture.”

The NextFuel reactor

Once the grass is harvested, it is dried and fed into NextFuel’s patented reactor with a sealed rotary drum, where oxygen is removed and the material is separated into fuel and waste; creating a clean copy of fossil fuel in less than 30 minutes. Waste gases emitted during the process are captured and used to generate heat or electricity for the facility.

As NextFuel explains, when the fuel is burned, it only releases the rest of the CO2 that was captured from the atmosphere while the grass was growing. For each completed cycle of burning and growing, less and less CO2 will reside in the atmosphere, because more and more will be deposited in the soil. So, the net contribution of CO2 from the fuel to the atmosphere from year 1 to year 2 is therefore negative.

A key challenge in terms of fighting climate change and increasing energy security is the question of cost: Since most of the world's energy infrastructure is based on the burning of fossil fuels, many countries are reluctant to make what they perceive as a costly switch to renewable energy sources. Since NextFuel can compete directly with fossil fuels in terms of prices, and uses existing infrastructure, it could represent a profitable solution to global climate change.

According to edie, NextFuel is currently produced by one Austrian facility, and NextFuel has secured funding from the EU and Austrian engineering firm Andritz to scale-up production. It is set to be supplied to power its first two large-scale projects by the end of 2019 — a cement plant in East Africa and a manufacturing facility in South America.

NextFuel says its goal is to create new jobs, especially in developing countries, by growing its elephant grass on plantations around the world with a production plant nearby.

NextFuel made its first public appearance at Arnold Schwarzenegger's R20 Regions of Climate Action (Austrian World Summit) in May 2018, where it was named one of ten best practice projects. It was also recently featured as one of top 5 innovative alternatives to fossil fuel by The New Economy.

The technology will be presented at COP24 on December 12.

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