Can this woman fuel the world?

Can this woman fuel the world?

Take the world’s most reliable, constant and universal waste product, and use it to fuel cars, planes and homes. Sound far-fetched? Vicki Buck, ex-mayor of Christchurch, is doing just that

She took on local politics, the education system and now Vicki Buck is emerging as an international eco-hero. Recently named as one of 50 people who could save the planet, this ex-Christchurch mayor may revolutionise global transport. Denis Welch meets the biofuel pioneer extracting green goo from Blenheim’s poo.

Photo: David Baird

Barely a year ago, biofuels were being hailed as the Next Big Thing in clean, green energy. Now they’re getting seriously bad press. The carbon footprint of biofuel production from crops like corn, maize and rapeseed turns out to be even bigger than that of the fossil fuels they’re intended to replace. Serious food shortages and price hikes have been blamed on the rising demand for food crops as biofuel.

The solution, if solution there is, may lie in the bowels and bladders of the good people of Blenheim, whose body waste currently winds up in sewage oxidization ponds where, converted into waste water, it flows through outfalls into rivers and the sea.

In that water, however, are squadrillions of algae, and from those algae an enterprising company called Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation aims to make biofuel that will help power anything from jet planes to cars. And this biofuel—unlike, say, the ethanol derived from corn—doesn’t take vast tracts of land out of food production.

Vicki Buck had never seen an alga in her life till she helped set up Aquaflow Bionomic, but the former mayor of Christchurch has become quite passionate about the little critters.

“Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation aims to make biofuel that will help power anything from jet planes to cars. And this biofuel—unlike, say, the ethanol derived from corn—doesn’t take vast tracts of land out of food production”

“I knew nothing about algae three years ago and I’ve come to love them!” she exclaims. “They’re in clouds, I’ve discovered—they’re everywhere, they’re totally ubiquitous, and they’re very social.”

I almost expect to see a pet alga run up and rub itself against Buck’s legs, as we sit in the sunshine outside her Christchurch house, but alas, they’re invisible to the naked eye. To the clothed eye, Buck assures me, “They’re incredibly beautiful—and they predate us by millions of years”.

So, these extremely old (but very social) microscopic organisms are going to put the gas back in our tanks in a clean, green, non-carboniferous way?

Sure will, if Aquaflow Bionomic has its way. On the verge of commercial-scale biocrude production, it already employs 18 staff (and 6,000 species of algae) at its Nelson headquarters, including biochemists and aquaculturists; and the process by which the fuel is extracted from the algae is ecologically friendly every step of the way.

“We collect the algae,” explains Buck, “having learnt many ways not to do it, and you end up with two products—algae and water.”

“The process of extracting the algae, which looks like slightly greenish water, is the first step in cleaning the water as well, because the algae have eaten a whole pile of crap: they’ve got nasties in them. Our theory is that we should be able to take that on a couple more steps and make that water drinkable again. So you end up with a fuel source—and clean water.”

Aquaflow Bionomic grew out of an earlier attempt to convert wood into biofuel, but that venture faltered. “The lignin in the wood was too much of an obstacle,” says Buck, “so we went down to the Metro café and had a bottle of wine and thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way than this!’”

“Boeing representatives have already been to see Aquaflow Bionomic. The idea of fuelling their planes with algae-based biofuel was a long way down their agenda, says Buck, ‘until they came and visited us.’ ”

“We” being Buck, Picton entrepreneur Nick Gerritsen and Barrie Leay, better known in former incarnations as executive director of the Electricity Supply Association and director-general of the National Party.

“I know, we’re just natural allies,” grins Buck, who used to belong to the Labour Party. “You can imagine some of the debates! Actually, he’s got a much purer history in this than most of us. He’s been talking and writing and into renewable energies for yonks.”

Generation Green

Algae’s potential as an energy source has long been recognised, but the science focused on separating out about 20 particularly oil-rich types. That process proved very expensive, so Aquaflow Bionomic took their cue from Ernest Rutherford (“We didn’t have much money, so we had to think”) and tried a different approach.

“We’ve taken a completely contrarian view,” says Buck. “We don’t want to isolate [the oil-rich algae]. We can’t afford to. We think it’s dumb. So we’ll work with what we’re given and make it easier and cheaper.”

Once parted from the water, the algae “looks really disgusting,” according to Buck. “It’s green, slimy sort of stuff.” Actually, she says, like the born-again algaphile she truly has become, “As you watch it come out, as it plops off the machine, it’s incredibly beautiful. Well, I thought it was beautiful.”

How the slimy stuff then morphs into fuel is of course a commercial secret, but basically it involves extracting lipid-rich oils from the pulp and refining them. There has already been one successful public test: in December 2006 David Parker, the Minister Responsible for Climate Change Issues, drove a Land Rover around Parliament’s forecourt with some unleaded algae in the tank and Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons as a passenger.

Let’s not get carried away, but one day that drive might come to seem as historic as the Wright brothers’ first flight or the day Rutherford accidentally dropped an atom on the lab floor and split it.

Whatever the new fuel is called—Superslime? Sewage Plus?—Aquaflow Bionomic aims to have it on the market by the end of this year. Interest has been expressed by American venture-capital companies looking for this kind of investment abroad, particularly in the light of ethanol’s waning star.

With the algae, Buck emphasizes again, “You’re taking something that’s a waste product, basically, and turning it into something useful. You’re not competing for resources with everybody else, you’re not making people in the developing world starve because there’s no corn or maize left in the world because it’s all gone to fuel SUVs.”

Corn-based ethanol is now referred to as a first-generation biofuel: “We’re second-generation or next-generation,” says Buck. “I’m not sure how many generations there are: we’re generation Z—whatever the current one is!”

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, has already warned MPs that New Zealand would be wiser to wait for second-generation biofuels to come on the market before enforcing their use at the pump, given the environmental costs of the first-generation fuels.

But can we be sure that extracting the algae won’t screw up the food chain in some as-yet-unforeseen way—ten years down the track, will people be smiting their brows and crying, “Didn’t those fools back in 2008 realise they’d be wrecking a fragile ecosystem?”

“No,” says Buck with a happy air of certitude. “We shouldn’t be putting that [waste water] back in the ocean. Definitely not. It’s quite nasty. It’s not helping.”

And we’re not destroying something else in order to get at these incredibly helpful algae? “No, I can’t honestly think that we are.”

Flying High

If the product does become a viable commodity, then, wholly unsubsidised, it will have to compete on world markets against massively subsidised US crop-based biofuels. But such is its appeal that Boeing representatives have already been to see Aquaflow Bionomic. The idea of fuelling their planes with algae-based biofuel was a long way down their agenda, says Buck, “until they came and visited us”.

With the demand for aviation fuel expected to double in the next ten years, other airlines are looking to biofuels too. Air New Zealand is planning a test flight, possibly with biodiesel from Aquaflow Bionomic, who recently appointed an aviation engineer as a consultant.

So it’s all go with the algae, and for Buck personally. Earlier this year—to her immense surprise—she found herself nominated by British newspaper the Guardian as one of 50 global green heroes: the people most able to stop destruction to our world. She can live with that, but to call her the “acceptable face of biofuels,” as the Guardian did, is to invite hoots of self-mocking laughter.

“Definitely not me! I’m not the acceptable face of anything! If I am, the world’s in deep trouble!”

She’s gone pretty green, though, having had her consciousness raised over the past few years, and feels “some sort of imperative to do something about it”.

And, she adds, there’s a joy in doing it through business as well. True, she’s frustrated by the green tape involved in seeking help from government agencies like the Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority, and would like to see more governmental urgency on climate-change issues, but she applauds the commitment to a carbon emissions trading scheme and, ultimately, carbon-neutrality.

“If you can see what’s happening,” she says, “it’s pretty hard to go back. What would be really important about making a product and just selling more of it onto the market so that we consume more stuff? It’s really hard to get your head around that now.

“As you become more aware of what climate change is doing and is going to do, then you can’t go back.”  

From local to global

After nine successful years as mayor of Christchurch, winning three elections before stepping down undefeated, the irrepressible Vicki Buck got involved with educational causes for a while: dissatisfied with the schooling her son was getting, she helped set up two alternative state schools in Christchurch, Discovery One and Unlimited.

She retains an interest in those, but her chief activity these days is in climate change start-ups like Aquaflow Bionomic (see main story).

This new phase in her life started six years ago when she was invited to join the board of Windflow Technology, the country’s only wind-turbine manufacturer. That led to setting up New Zealand Windfarms (motto: “The answer is blowing in the wind”), whose first farm, Te Rere Hau in the Manawatu, opened in 2006.

Buck is also one of the people behind Celsias (motto: “Changing the world one project at a time”), which has become one of the world’s most visited climate change websites, and rightly so—it’s a great way to find out about green projects worldwide and to help fund them if you wish.

Another new company, Carbonscape, grew out of what Buck calls a “completely accidental scientific discovery” by Chris Turney, professor of physical geography at Exeter University, who spent last year in New Zealand, and whose parents live here.

Naturally, she won’t share the details of Turney’s discovery. Ultimately, she says, it’s about capturing the carbon dioxide in trees before the trees die and release it back into the atmosphere. “The concept is that you would take the trees and convert them to charcoal and lock that carbon up, because charcoal is the gold standard of carbon sequestration.”

Charcoal is completely inert but can be converted into biochar, which, notwithstanding its inertness, is good for the soil. Massey University has launched a Biochar Initiative, appointing two professors of biochar research in the process, and the first commercial machine for producing biochar is currently being built for Carbonscape in Auckland.

Capital has been raised, says Buck, though not from the Government: “You go to Forst and government agencies who say ‘There’s no market for this’. Riiight! We believe ya! So you just give up on those.”

Yet another company in which she’s involved is mi49—so-called because 49% of New Zealand’s carbon emissions are agricultural in origin; “mi” stands for methane inhibition. Again, she’s cagey about what’s actually involved but it’s aimed, as you would expect, at inhibiting methane production from the stomachs of ruminants, and there’s no genetic modification involved.

Next? Solar heating strikes her as a field rich in potential. She certainly soaked up the sun in the course of our interview. Personally, she does a lot of walking. Keeps green bags in the back of the car. Catches the bus quite often. Lines the rubbish bin with newspaper, not plastic.

“I’m also acutely aware,” she says with a laugh, “that there are a million more things that I could do, and that any idea of being any sort of model for other people is definitely not my ambition!”

What is biofuel?

Biofuel is fuel created from biological material. Wood is a biofuel, but these days the word usually refers to liquid fuel used in vehicles. The two most common types of biofuel for transport are biodiesel and bioethanol.

Biodiesel is produced from vegetable oils or animal fats, and can be used in any diesel engine. Bioethanol is an alcohol produced by fermenting sugars, starches or cellulose derived from plants. It can be used in petrol engines, mixed with petrol. It can’t yet be used in aircraft or boats.

Is biofuel good for the environment?

Biofuel’s advantage is that it is renewable, since the fuel source is plant-based. (Fossil fuel is considered non-renewable because it is being used much faster than it can form.)

Biofuels still produce carbon dioxide when burnt in combustion engines, but the amount is equal to the CO2 absorbed by the plant matter during its life, so the basic carbon equation remains the same. Some extra fuel is expended harvesting, refining and transporting the biofuel, however.

Bioethanol burns more cleanly than petrol and reduces the amount of CO2 produced. According to the AA, using 30 litres of ethanol-blended fuel a week, instead of petrol, would save over 250kg of CO2 emissions every year.

Why’s it getting bad press, then?

Because of the increasing demand for biofuel, there are economic incentives to convert land into biofuel crop plantations. Recent increases in rates of deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia are blamed on demand for biofuel crops. Leaving the land uncultivated would save more carbon emissions overall.

Food shortage crises are being reported in developing countries, as farmland suitable for growing food is instead used for more profitable biofuel crops. The World Bank has pointed out that the grain required to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol could feed one person for a year.

Global rises in food prices are also being blamed on biofuel production. Because food staples like wheat, soya and corn are in demand for bioethanol production, the cost of food has increased. (Population growth and increasing global demand for meat are also partly to blame. More than seven times the grain crops diverted for biofuel are used to feed livestock.)

On top of all this, nitrogen fertilisers are often used on biofuel crops, generating the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, and most ethanol plants worldwide are powered by coal. This means production of many biofuels creates more greenhouse gas emissions than sticking with fossil fuel.

What are first- and second-generation biofuels?

First-generation biofuels are made from conventional agricultural products—food plants, like maize, corn and soya. Second-generation biofuels derive from non-food crops, like algae, switchgrass and wood pulp. They require less land mass, less fertiliser and less water to grow. Second-generation biofuels may be suitable for use in aircraft.

What about biofuels in New Zealand?

We produce enough bioethanol from whey, a by-product of the dairy industry, to meet around 0.3% of New Zealand’s petrol needs. Tallow, a by-product of the meat industry, could produce around 5% of New Zealand’s biodiesel. Currently, however, most whey and tallow is exported.

The Biofuel Bill, under consideration by Parliament’s environment select committee as we go to press, currently requires 0.53% of energy sold by oil companies to come from biofuels, rising to 3.4% in 2012. It will likely be necessary to import biofuels to meet this target.

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) has introduced a label to show that a biofuel has met quality specifications, and is working on a mark to show which biofuels are sustainable and result in good overall reductions in greenhouse gases.

Will biofuels hurt my lovely car?

Most existing petrol cars can run on up to 15% bioethanol. In New Zealand, the current maximum allowed level is 10%. Some manufacturers cover diesel engines under warranty for up to 100% biodiesel use; blends of up to 5% biodiesel are allowed for use in New Zealand without engine modification.

Before you use biofuel for the first time, wait till your fuel tank is nearly empty, then fill it right up. If your car is over ten years old, have a mechanic check the fuel tank for accumulated water first, because it could cause problems starting or in very cold temperatures. Temperature won’t be a problem after your first tank, but you will need to change your fuel filter after the first few fills of biofuel.

Your car will get about the same fuel economy with biofuel; there is slightly less energy in bioethanol than petrol, but there is more oxygen, so it burns better.

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