World's first carbon-negative fuel set to be unveiled at COP24 Summit

A Swedish startup is set to unveil what it claims is the world's first carbon-negative fuel at the COP24 climate summit in Poland, in a bid to help nations decarbonise the hard-to-abate transport and heat sectors.

The innovative new fuel, which is made entirely from elephant grass and is called NextFuel, is being posited as a viable alternative to carbon-intense cooking and heating fuels such as wood chips, coal and kerosene.

Manufactured in Austria by a startup of the same name, the fuel is made by feeding dried elephant grass into a sealed rotary drum, where oxygen is removed from the air and the material is separated into fuel and waste – a process which takes 30 minutes. Waste gases emitted during this process are captured and used to generate renewable heat or power for the manufacturing facility.

The fuel portion of the rotary drum output is then densified and pressed into briquettes before being cooled. The cool briquettes are then ready to be sold for either industrial or domestic heat and electricity production, with NextFuel claiming they can be burned in existing coal plants without the need for infrastructure upgrades.

NextFuel estimates that if a cement factory currently running on coal-fired power and heat were to switch to its alternative fuel, its annual operational carbon footprint would be reduced by 105%, making it carbon-negative. This is because elephant grass sequesters carbon as it grows and is a renewable resource, capable of growing four metres tall in three months.

“For the first time in the history of mankind, we have the ability to produce a cheap and clean copy of fossil fuel,” NextFuel's chief executive Stefano Romano said.

“Elephant grass needs a lot of CO2 to grow, and also stores some of this in its roots below ground. In that way, it captures so much carbon from the atmosphere that it can make our entire process carbon-negative in a matter of months.”

The innovative fuel is currently produced at scale by one Austrian factory, with NextFuel having secured funding to scale-up production last year from the European Union (EU) and Austrian engineering firm Andritz. It is set to be supplied to power the first two large-scale projects by the end of 2019 – namely a cement plant in East Africa and a manufacturing facility in South America.

Fueling innovation

In the wake of repeated warnings that the world will fall short on meeting the aims of Sustainable Development Goal 7: Clean Energy for All – largely due to a lack of progress in the heat and transport sectors – companies have moved at a pace to develop innovative, low-carbon fuels in recent months.

British Airways (BA), for example, last month launched a competition aimed at encouraging researchers and innovators to develop a low-carbon jet fuel, with a £25,000 prize being offered to the winner.

Called the BA 2219 or Future of Fuels challenge and launched on Friday (30 November), the scheme challenges academics to develop a fuel capable of powering a long-haul commercial flight of up to 300 customers, generating net-zero or net-negative emissions in the process.

The move forms part of BA’s £6.5bn investment in modernising its fleet and practices in order to drive sustainability, which has already seen the airline forge a partnership with renewable fuel startup Velocys. Under the partnership, the companies will work to co-create a jet fuel from household waste and the gases it emits.

Similarly, Virgin Atlantic recently showcased an innovative jet fuel made from recycled industrial waste gases this year, using the low-carbon alternative to partially power a commercial flight from London to Orlando, Florida.

Developed as part of a partnership with LanzaTech – a firm which recycles industrial waste gases and other waste streams into ethanol-based aviation fuel – Virgin Atlantic claims that the fuel generates up to 70% fewer emissions than regular fossil jet fuel.

LanzaTech claims that the gas-capturing technology could be scaled up and retrofitted at 65% of the world’s steel mills, giving it the potential to meet 20% of the global demand for aviation fuel.

Sarah George


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