Breakthroughs for biofuel in aviation and transport sectors

Car manufacturer SEAT has provided insight into its innovative project that turns wastewater into a biomethane fuel capable of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% compared to traditional vehicles, while NASA has released data on the viability on using biofuels in jet engines.

SEAT originally partnered with Spanish firm Aqualia to launch the SMART Green Gas project, aimed at creating 100% renewable biofuels to be used in compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles.

The partnership sees wastewater turned into biomethane at Spanish treatment plants in a process that separates water from sludge before being converted into gas following a fermentation treatment.

According to SEAT around 4,000 cubic hectometres of waste water is treated in Spain every year, equivalent to more than 1.5 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. For SEAT, access to this water can answer challenges relating to water scarcity and air pollution caused by tailpipe emissions.

“A car can drive nearly five million kilometres with the biofuel obtained from the water used by 50,000 inhabitants and treated in a year in a mid-sized treatment plant. In other words, it could circle the globe 100 times or make six return trips to the Moon,” a statement from SEAT claims.

A medium-sized plant can treat around 10,000 cubic metres of water, which can be turned into 1,000 cubic metres of biomethane, every day. This would create enough fuel for more than 150 vehicles to drive 100km each day, all while emitting 80% less CO2.

In addition, CNG vehicles, SEAT has at least four commercialised models, aren’t subject to recently-established traffic restrictions that have been put in place in Paris and Madrid since December as a means to limit atmospheric pollution from vehicles.

The five-year project will see SEAT provide CNG vehicles to test the new fuels over a total test run distance of 120,000km. The SMART Green Gas project runs in conjunction with the LIFE+ Methamorphosis programme, which is funded by the European Commission (EC).

LIFE+ Methamorphosis is coordinated by Aqualia to demonstrate the feasibility, at an industrial scale, of two innovative waste treatment systems. Firstly, the programme will test the UMBRELLA prototype, which will be installed at sewage treatment facilities in Barcelona. This process uses a new anaerobic member bioreactor to separate the gas from solid waste. An additional system then removes nitrogen from the resulting biogas, which can also be reclaimed, before it is refined and compressed into CNG for vehicle use.

The second prototype, named METHAGRO, will concentrate on facilities dealing with animal manure from farming, creating biomethane that will either power vehicles or be fed back into the grid.

Set for lift-off  

SEAT’s update arrived on the same day that a NASA study found that using biofuels to power jet engines for aeroplanes could reduce particle emissions in exhausts by 50% to 70%.

In partnership with agencies from Germany and Canada, NASA recorded data from flight tests near its Armstrong Flight Research Centre in California in 2013. Tests saw jets reach as high as 40,000 feet while engines burned a 50-50 blend of aviation fuel and a renewable alternative derived from hydro-processed esters and fatty acids from plant oil.

In the past, NASA has claimed that America’s aviation industry could reduce pollutant emissions by 75% – saving $250bn in the process – by incorporating refined green technologies that the Agency has developed.

Matt Mace

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