Stepping on the gas: from landfill to biofuel

Methane from a landfill site is being used to generate a low emission biofuel for refuse trucks, in a pioneering closed-loop initiative. Mike Gerber reports

Albury, a leafy parish in the heart of Surrey and a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, is home to Europe's first producer of liquid bio-methane (LBM) from a landfill site next door. LBM is used as a low emission gas fuel for trucks. Project developer Gasrec is in partnership with BOC, which provides the LBM plant operation and maintenance services, and SITA UK, which owns the landfill.

At the LBM plant, which was officially opened in late June, the raw gas that the landfill generates goes through a number of processes. These include compression, purification and refinement - at the end what is left is about 96% methane. The gas is then liquefied by dropping its temperature to -161˚C and placed into three storage vessels on site. Each vessel contains about 15 tonnes of bio-methane and is ready to dispense to authorised tankers. Gasrec has contracted the Hardstaff Group, one of the largest in LNG (liquefied natural gas) bulk transporters, to manage distribution of LBM.

Greenest and cleanest
All vehicles that can operate on LNG or compressed natural gas can use LBM, which Gasrec says is even greener. Promoted as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels, LBM, Gasrec claims, offers twice the reduction in CO2 emissions of natural gas. It burns more cleanly and quietly than diesel, with a 90% reduction in PM10 particulate, a 60% reduction in nitrous oxide, a 50% reduction in sulphur dioxide, and a 30% reduction in noise.

At full capacity, the plant will be able to produce 5,000 tonnes of LBM a year - enough to fuel up to 150 HGVs or 500 LGVs. Gasrec's chief executive, Richard Lilleystone, tells how the company negotiated permission to build the plant.

"We arrived at the Albury Parish Council one day and said to them, 'What we would like to do is build a bio-methane plant at Albury landfill site' - you can imagine their reaction," he says. Gasrec negotiated with the council, explaining the benefits of the project. "We managed to put ourselves in the position where we received planning permission and a very good working relationship," says Lilleystone.

Because the plant is in a beauty spot, it is very discreetly situated. From the road, one would not know it was there. Gasrec's finance director, James Ingall, anticipates no hassles with green lobbyists.

"If anybody was to talk to us, I would say what we're trying to do is solve the problem. Over-dependence on fossil fuels, coupled with security of supply issues, coupled with global warming. We're part of the solution, rather than part of the problem," he points out.

The company's initial target for the use of LBM is commercial vehicles operating in the haulage and waste management sectors. "This is refuse collection fleets, logistics businesses, trucking operations for the big retail companies moving food up and down the motorways - that sort of thing. We want to provide a virtuous circle because these companies tend to produce a lot of waste. We take the waste, make the fuel, sell the fuel back to them and it closes the loop," says Ingall.

Fuel for thought
SITA, for one, sees LBM playing a part in the fuelling of its vehicles in the future. SITA's new markets development manager, Stuart Hayward-Higham, says: "We're working very hard through our links with Imperial College to look at the full carbon and running benefits of diesel trucks versus gas trucks to make sure we've got all the facts and know the reliability of them."

SITA already has experience of running LNG and, in Sweden and France, CNG trucks. Besides landfill, Hayward-Higham sees great potential of processing LBM from waste that comes in for anaerobic digestion.

The Gasrec plant is not the world's first such installation - in California, a company called Prometheus Energy is doing something similar. "They had propriety technology which they had designed and developed themselves and they'd done all the research and development on it. But I'm not sure of the efficacy of that technology," says Ingall.

"Whereas what we've done, we've assembled a suite of tried-and-tested technologies where we haven't invented anything. We've used features of equipment that have been used in other areas - it's just putting them all together that has been all the challenge."

Although the Albury landfill site will be full by 2011 and closed to new waste, it will continue to produce gas for the next 50 or 60 years. "But the period in which it will continue to produce gas that it can be economically processed is about 15 years, after which the landfill is capped and landscaped," says Ingall.

"The biggest challenge we have is to get from one plant to three, four, five, six, seven plants. Our business plan is based on getting to 50,000 tonnes of liquid bio-methane a year within three or four years.

"To do that we've got to work with people that we are already working with. Waste managers who already own the landfill assets, local authorities who can direct the waste streams. Then it's engineering companies and technology providers to help us build the plants and get them on the ground."

Mike Gerber is a freelance journalist

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