EU-funded researchers are looking to commercialise cutting-edge technology that converts toxic olive oil waste into heat and electricity, bringing environmental and economic benefits to some of the most underdeveloped regions of Europe.
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The EU-funded BIOGAS2PEM-FC project, completed in October 2014, showed that olive oil waste could be sustainably used as a power source for milling. A fully functioning demonstration plant was built at an olive oil farm in Andalusia, Spain. According to project coordinator Per Ekdunge, chief technology officer at PowerCell Sweden, these systems could provide on-site waste management and power generation for thousands of olive mills once fully up and running.
“The project partners are now discussing the possibility of applying for funding to scale up the operation,” explains Ekdunge. “The system has a huge potential market.”
A key attraction is the cost. The project estimates that the price of the overall solution in commercial format is expected not to exceed 20 000 euro/kW, which means that it would achieve a return on investment (ROI) in about 10 years. “The technology can also be used for other sources of agriculture waste, which makes the potential market even bigger,” adds Ekdunge. “We have already been contacted directly by potential customers.”
Sustainable rural business practices
The key environmental benefit is that the proprietary BIOGAS2PEM-FC system enables olive oil waste – which contains pesticides and toxic organic compounds – to be used as an energy source, rather than ending up as a pollutant in landfill or running off into rivers. “Olive mill waste has become a critical environmental problem,” says Ekdunge. “Millions of tonnes are produced every year.”
Indeed, it is estimated that an average olive oil mill produces up to 30 million cubic metres of salty wastewater during the intense annual three to four-month production period. However, instead of having to dispose of this waste product at great cost, BIOGAS2PEM-FC’s solution presents an opportunity to turn it into biogas and, ultimately, electricity.
BIOGAS2PEM-FC’s three-part subsystem involves microorganisms that break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, convert biogas into a hydrogen-rich gas and then turn this into electricity through the use of fuel cells.
The team is currently working on overcoming some final technical and economic barriers of on-site power generation using fuel obtained from olive oil extraction wastes.
Once fully commercialised, this innovation could prove critical to the economy of many regions in the Mediterranean. Spain, for example, produces 50% of the world’s olive oil, with 73% of that coming from Andalusia. In 2013, olive oil exports from Andalusia alone were worth €1.5bn. Spain also recently overtook Italy as the market leader in olive oil in the US and Japan.
Meeting worldwide demand – while at the same time achieving sustainable production – is vitally important. The BIOGAS2PEM-FC project’s goal has been to enable small olive mills to cut waste costs and limit environmental damage by using their waste products to generate power.
“Through this process, all waste products return to the olive oil production cycle, making it ultimately more sustainable,” concludes Ekdunge.