International investors come to Belfast to see green energy invention at the cutting edge of renewable technology
International investors from Japan, the Ukraine, Spain and the USA are in Northern Ireland this week to investigate a new product which its Belfast-based inventors say could revolutionise the renewable energy market.
The team behind the new biomass system say that all jobs and manufacturing will be based in Northern Ireland.
Unlike some other systems, the product can make energy-generating pellets from very fine waste material like sawdust, woodchip and even coal dust and could potentially save companies millions of pounds.
AEG Pelleting Limited is unveiling the invention to an invited audience of international partners, industry specialists and investors at a three-day event in Belfast.
The system converts other industrial and agricultural by-products, like straw and sewage, into fuel for use in commercial and residential boilers and large-scale electricity power plants.
The granulation process was developed over the past 12 years by two British inventors, Northern Ireland man John Gilbert and John Webster, working in association with Queen's University Belfast.
The pair recently entered into an exclusive global licensing and partnership agreement with London-based Active Energy Group, one of Europe's fastest-growing suppliers of woodchip for biomass fuel for power plants, to commercialise the core technology, and to roll it out internationally.
The showcase is being held at AEGP's new research and development facility in Carrickfergus and at the Hilton hotel in Belfast city centre.
This will be the first demonstration of how the technology can address the major global problem of disposing of millions of tonnes of sawdust by-product generated each year by the sawmill and timber processing industries, in a safe and environmentally-friendly way.
The equipment is likely to cost less than 20% of existing pelleting technology, does not require any gas or heat energy for drying and only utilises a tiny proportion of electricity during production.
As the core processing units are mobile – taking up the same space as two articulated lorries – and can be installed on-site at facilities such as sawmills or timber yards, the process eliminates the costs, emissions and problems of raw materials deliveries, which have made the cost of transporting waste product prohibitive in the past.
Active Energy Group chief executive Richard Spinks said that his company was looking for just such technology for almost five years before finding it in Northern Ireland.
"John Gilbert and John Webster, who have experience in the chemicals, mining and engineering trades, brought two halves of an idea together and are the only people I have found in the world who have come up with exactly what my firm is looking for," he said.
"This product has found a way of binding fine materials together to make fuel without energy.
"During this week we will be showcasing to almost 30 people from seven countries over three days, including two of the largest buyers of biomass products in the UK, as well as our Japanese partners who employ over 43,000 people worldwide.
"We intend to base ourselves in Northern Ireland and have already started a research and development project.
"Northern Ireland has a good history, it is a region which has in the past been very good at inventing things and very good at making them too so we would not want the manufacturing jobs to go anywhere else.
"This product will save companies millions of pounds.
"In our experience, we know that it cannot be 'green' or environmentally friendly to bring material from the USA and Canada to burn it in the UK. We can literally park up with this product on-site and ship out fuel directly to the nearest user."
Mr Spinks added: "The pellets themselves burn with far less smoke than other pellets, and we will demonstrate this to the visiting investors so they can see it for themselves.
"We also welcome working with wet material like compost, which a lot of other firms converting to biomass will not touch.
"The biggest associated costs and the worst damage caused in the production of fuels for biomass is the gas burned during the pelletising process – and we don't need to do that.
"As well as being used to produce energy, the pellets produced using this technology can also be used to absorb hazardous materials leeching into water courses, depending on the feedstock material used to make them.
"The system costs around £3.5m and companies would get payback in less than a year.
"Companies producing waste materials don't have to build a plant to get rid of it, they don't need to pay to have it removed and they don't need a permit," he added.
Understandably, Mr Spinks remained coy about the actual technology which drives the process.
"It's like Coca-Cola," he said.
"We want everyone to have it but we don't want anyone to know how it's done."