GreenTech: Renewable, Cleaner Coal

In Ireland, there are railways called heritage railways, and they’re really important to the preservation of historic railway equipment and infrastructure there. Notable heritage railways in Ireland include Lartigue Monorail, Foyle Valley Railway, and Cavan and Leitrim Railway, among others. Late last year, the Stradbally Woodland Railway became one of the first in the country to demonstrate the viability of a clean energy technology called biocoal for its steam locomotives.

Biocoal is a biomass-based coal substitute. In this case, the biocoal in question is a stove-ready commercial product called “Harvest Flame”, courtesy of Arigna Fuels. While biocoal can be made from several sources, these trains are running on biocoal produced from olive stones, a food industry residue, made using a process called torrefaction. This process gets the biomass hot enough to strip out moisture and other elements, leaving behind only biocoal.

Like we said, biocoal can come from lost of different sources… so we won’t be stuck trying to find enough olive stones to make biocoal work for everyone. In fact, researchers are telling us that seaweed may once again show up as a clean-energy superhero because it could be perfect for the production of coal-replacing clean biocoal. In Norway, researchers have been testing the theory through the Seaweed Carbon Solutions JIP project.

The project is led by SINTEF, a large non-profit that conducts research into things like the environment, health, technology, and energy. They think seaweed can be converted to biocoal at a large scale to reduce CO2 emissions, and they’re hoping that a new offshore cultivation facility will do the trick… it’s expected to produce 600 tons of seaweed and yield 25 tons of biocoal.

Why seaweed? It doesn’t need fresh water, grows fast, and isn’t difficult to farm in open waters. Along with trees, it’s a fantastic way to absorb CO2. First, macroalgae seedlings are cultivated on dry land on ropes, with the ropes serving to support the microalgae as it grows. Then, they’re moved to the ocean. For the Seaweed Carbon Solutions JIP project, labs in Norway and the Netherlands will incubate seeds prior to deployment into open water farms.

Biocoal has the potential to help several spaces clean up their act… such as energy-related emissions from the iron and steel industry, which currently account for about 7% of total global emissions from the energy system. Steel production isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure with a projected growth rate of 30% until 2050… this space leans heavy on blast furnaces, which produce heavy emissions. Biocaol could help.

You may also see biocoal called biochar… firms like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Microsoft have both jumped into biochar projects, and are working on joint projects in the space. Microsoft, for instance, is working with Carbon Streaming Corporation on carbon removal credits from a biochar project called the Waverly Biochar project in Waverly, Virginia. The project should deliver up to 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide removal credits a year toward Microsoft’s carbon goals.

Microsoft has already been actively hunting down and looking at investing into biochar companies, and has launched what’s known as the Biochar Fund, which is a $10 million fund to support the development and deployment of biochar projects. Key focus areas for Microsoft in biochar include more investment for new technologies and projects, they seem to think biochar has the potential to solve lots of problems.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. has established the Center for Carbon Transition, and they are looking to toss $2.5 trillion into the investing bucket to help reach their climate change goals. Part of this strategy could lean on biochar, as they’ve already announced some agreements with biomass carbon removal and storage startups. These are just a few of the companies actively looking into the promises of biocoal… come back next week for more from the green tech space.