AdFerTech hopes to clean up with slurry solution
QUB research into disposing of 'liquor waste' by converting it to powder could be the answer to an extremely expensive problem for farmers. Clare Weir reports
It's a vital part of the farming world, but farmyard slurry is smelly, dangerous, difficult to store and – as was demonstrated during the recent wet weather which has swept the UK and Ireland – almost impossible to spread on the land.
But while the by-product is extremely useful, storing and disposing of it is becoming increasingly problematic.
However, researchers at Queen's University in Belfast are working on a product which they believe can transform 'liquor waste' into a harmless powder, which they believe could save farmers and businesses alike millions of pounds every year. Their company AdFerTech has developed technology to turn waste liquor, a by-product of biogas generation, into low-cost, organic granular fertiliser.
The nutrients contained within the liquor are concentrated onto solids to higher levels which can be stored, transported easily and later used as a fertiliser.
The fertiliser is much easier to store and transport than traditional liquid fertiliser and will mean companies do not have to spend millions on waste water treatment.
The ADFertech device could help save farmers and fertiliser companies millions by converting waste products and volatile liquid fertiliser into a simple granulated product for ease of storing and spreading.
And last October the firm won the 'clean tech' section of the 25K Awards, run by the Northern Ireland Science Park's CONNECT programme.
ADFertech director Quinton Fivelman said that as with lots of new inventions, the product came about as a way of solving a practical problem.
"A group of scientists at the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast had a problem where there was too much liquor waste coming out of their anaerobic digestor," he said.
"They contacted my colleague, Professor Gavin Walker and his team, and we began working on a way to remove the nutrients from the liquid.
"The liquid is hard to get rid of, but it is full of nutrients.
"At the moment, fields are waterlogged, there are nitrogen vulnerable zones where you cannot spread it, so it simply has to be stored, which can produce dangerous fumes, or moved around, which is impractical, or disposed of, which can be very expensive and is a complete waste of the valuable nutrients.
"Some firms have to construct their own waste water treatment plants to dispose of the excess liquor, which can cost millions of pounds."
Mr Fivelman said that the product is still in the prototype stage and the team is currently working with the UK Technology Strategy Board to start scaling it up and testing it.
"Our long-term plans is to get the product working, commercialised and sold to anaerobic digestion plants and other types of businesses in Northern Ireland, the UK, Europe and further afield.
"There are other solutions to dealing with the liquor but nothing like ours.
"They would tend to be a lot more expensive and require high amounts of capital and operating expenditure.
"We're hoping to sell our units for around or under £200,000 and they will operate as a bolt-on to existing operations so they can be retro-fitted to farms and factories with no major construction or infrastructure works needed.
"We are currently developing the system and building the prototype with an aim to be getting large scale testing going by the end of this year.
"Our product produces a solid fertiliser which is easy to store and spread, and clean water, farms get a source of cheap fertiliser, it works at a low cost – so everyone wins."
In February their AdFerTech won a €20,000 (£17,000) prize in an award-scheme supported by the EU's main climate innovation initiative, Climate-KIC.
AdFerTech took home the Climate-KIC Early Stage Entrepreneurs Prize, which will see the start-up entering the first stage of Climate-KIC's pan-European start-up Acceleration Programme.
The sell-out Cleantech Innovate 2014 event, held at the headquarters of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London on February 12 featured a key-note speech by Greg Barker, Minister of State for the UK's Department of Energy & Climate Change.
Forty British growth-oriented and venture-ready companies pitched their technologies at the event organised by green-industry business network ecoConnect.
Who is behind the company?
Dr Chi Mangwandi (CSO): a lecturer in Chemical Engineering at QUB and has a vast background in particle technology.
He originally invented the novel AD process and has a wide range of knowledge in the area of adsorption techniques.
Dr Quinton Fivelman (CEO): an innovation and commercialisation strategy expert. Expert in technology assessment and is responsible for guiding and managing the innovation and commercial strategies.
Prof Gavin Walker (Director): a Professor of Chemical Engineering in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at QUB and has been awarded the Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship by the Royal Academy of Engineering, identifying him as one of the top engineering researchers in the UK.
What is digestate liquor waste?
Commonly used as a raw liquid fertiliser on land
Problems of run-off, leaching and pollution of water courses
Seen as a waste
Costly to be disposed of in wastewater treatment plants
Negative impact on the development of AD in the renewable energy from waste sector
With increased capacity in AD forecast these simple disposal techniques are unsustainable
What is anaerobic digestion?
Anaerobic digestion is the natural breakdown of organic materials into methane and carbon dioxide gas and fertiliser either naturally, or in an anaerobic digester.
A typical anaerobic digester is a sealed vessel, or series of vessels, in which bacteria act without oxygen. The organic material contents need to be fully mixed and warmed, usually to blood temperature.
Biogas is the name given to the mixture of gases formed during the anaerobic digestion of organic wastes, made up of 70% methane and 30% carbon dioxide.
What's the firm achieved so far?
Seed funding of £400k raised for Phase 2
A number of potential funders on board
R&D programme to bring to market in 18 months
Scaling up and testing bolt-on device
Sell device for around £150k per plant
Expect sales of 2,000 devices in five years
In addition, could sell adsorbant substrate
AD plants have faster return on investment
How does it plan to grow
Sell the device via key UK and EU partners
Partners to have links to AD plant construction as well as AD manufacturing expertise
Sublicenses to additional AD plant manufacturers such as retrofitting companies and overseas AD companies to install device
Number of AD industry leaders onboard, providing funding, advice, support and resources.
How other companies use it
East Belfast plane-maker Bombardier has received approval for a biogas combined heat and power unit with the capacity to produce 500kw of power. Biogas is produced by decomposing organic matter such as animal waste in a process known as anaerobic digestion.
This gas is then used to power an engine unit that converts it to mechanical energy and then to electricity.
In order to provide information to the farming industry on the performance and economics of on-farm anaerobic digestion in Northern Ireland, the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute installed an on-farm anaerobic digester in Hillsborough back in 2008.
During the first 27 months of operation AFBI found that one tonne of dairy cow slurry at 69g/kg dry matter produced 15.2 cubic metres of biogas containing 85 kWh of energy.
Some 2.1 tonnes of organic matter in slurry produced 280 cubic metres of biogas.