Constanta, Romania is an adopted home city of mine through my in-laws, I am often visiting and I am regularly following the happenings of the city (the same can be said about Romania in general as evidenced by my series about Rosia Montana). So it was with strong “patriotism” and pride that I noticed the port city featured in one of my sustainability news sites with a story on alternative fuels from industrial waste. Alternative fuels is a hot topic for the broader transportation sector, driven mostly by electric vehicles and occasionally hydrogen fuel cells. But these are all new fuels. The concept of waste-to-fuel is much less known than alternative fuels in transportation, so Constanta’s project is quite an innovation. This article summarises this and another new technology that converts waste into transportation fuel.

Industrial shipping waste to marine fuel at the Port of Constanta

The city of Constanta is Romania’s second largest city behind the capital Bucharest, and is a significant city for trade. The Port of Constanta is the 18th largest port in Europe, servicing Central and Eastern Europe particularly countries along the Danube River like Bulgaria, Serbia, Austria, Germany and Hungary. The port is the main economic activity for the Constanta municipality, with most residents in shipping or port-related occupations.

Constanta is also apparently “one of the major oil distribution areas for Central and Eastern Europe”. The Port of Constanta hauls in a lot of primary resources, including oil drilled offshore from the Black Sea. One of the main oil shippers in the region, Grup Servicii Petroliere (GSP), has just made its dirty work a lot cleaner. Last month it signed a Letter of Intent to work with Ecoslops, a technology which takes sludge, bilge waters and ballast waters – each categorised as industrial waste – and converts it into marine fuel. The processing plant is planned to service not only GSP’s slops, but become a service for all around the Black Sea, including Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia.

This waste is valuable from two perspectives. Firstly, it has hydrocarbons which I presume are what comprises the new fuel. Secondly, it is expensive to deal with as it has to be collected and treated on land under the MARPOL Convention. There is also a third, indirect source of broader value, in that the air pollution created from the slops’ incineration is prevented which creates a better working environment for more productive employees.

"No time to waste" by Maersk Line on Flickr
“No time to waste” by Maersk Line on Flickr

Agricultural waste to biofuel from Cool Planet

The Constanta case study took me back to an article I read in May about agricultural waste to biofuel. This is not new, having been a common methodology of carbon abatement for carbon offset projects since they began in the early 2000s. But Cool Planet’s feature in The Guardian in May implies that its solution is different. It is able to mix seamlessly with gasoline (quoting The Guardian article):

“Cool Planet’s process uses wood chips, agricultural waste products or other nonfood organic matter, heating them in a pyrolysis unit to temperatures as high as 500C. The vapors that are emitted by the heated biomass are channeled through a proprietary catalyst and then condensed into a biofuel that is molecularly identical to conventional fossil fuels.”

And this apparently removes carbon from the atmosphere through a marketed soil additive by-product that can also reduce water demands. This biochar product, called Cool Terra, “decomposes very slowly, which means it can lock carbon into the earth – and keep it out of the air – for hundreds of years”..

Cool Planet is at the funding stage, having sought investment and grant support to get itself commercialised. The first production facility is planned to come online this year, so it will be exciting to see if that is achieved.

"Biochar" by Marcia O'Connor on Flickr
“Biochar” by Marcia O’Connor on Flickr

Financial benefits of this trend

Waste recycling and reuse has a strong financial business case when the cost of typical treatment and disposal is greater than the recycling and reuse. Complex industrial wastes have a high cost of disposal, particularly in the maritime industry where practices such as “flags of convenience” and dumping (e.g. Koko, Nigeria) are common. An opportunity for a waste stream to then have financial value post-processing can reduce the net cost of disposal.

In agriculture, the financials are similarly attractive. Take the situation in Australia for example, where the dramatic changes in climatic conditions from year to year are making it more difficult for steady production and therefore revenue. To be able to sell agricultural waste to an organisation like Cool Planet would provide an additional revenue stream for it to weather the down times.

Environmental benefits of this trend

The focus on electric vehicles is important but ultimately depends environmentally on each region’s energy mix. That is, as to whether it is powered by primary or renewable resources. My home state of Victoria (Australia), for example, relies heavily on coal. So therefore, the fundamental fuel for an electric car is coal. Contrast that to Denmark which is heavily skewed to wind energy, their electric cars are essentially powered by the wind. Ideally, working with renewable resources is preferred. Waste is a kind of renewable energy that also removes pollution, an environmental double whammy.

"Piles of scrap iron prepared to be shipped from Constanta Harbour, Romania" by Gabriel on Flickr
“Piles of scrap iron prepared to be shipped from Constanta Harbour, Romania” by Gabriel on Flickr

What next?

As both these technologies are at the early stage, it is necessary to follow these case studies closely with the view to adopt once proven.

Views expressed in this article reflect that of my own and not my employer’s.

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