By Emmanuel Joseph
A “game-changing” waste-to-energy project designed to slash fuel prices by half and significantly reduce CO2 emissions will be rolled out here in June.
The new venture is being executed by locally-based biofuel company Rum and Sargassum Incorporated, which has produced biogas from co-digesting rum distillery wastewater, Blackbelly sheep manure, and Sargassum seaweed, in the laboratory at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill Campus.
Founder Dr Legena Henry told Barbados TODAY: “This year, the company expects to have secured a full patent for its technology and to roll out its first biogas refuelling station.”
“We are actually setting up our pilot this year with a local energy company in Barbados…. We will probably start in June. We have produced the gas on campus in the lab and we are now scaling up to do it on a larger scale,” disclosed Dr Henry who is a mechanical engineer and lecturer in renewable energy at the Cave Hill Campus.
She said the venture could supply the national gas grid, augment the electricity grid, and even supply liquified natural gas for export.
“Bio-CNG [compressed natural gas] is an inexpensive solution that can help Bajans slash their gas bill by 50 per cent. Rest assured that in the current energy transition, you do not need to part with your car. For car owners, we have an inexpensive solution. You can now halve the fuel bill on your current car using our renewable bio-CNG made from cheap, locally sourced waste products like rum distillery wastewater, Blackbelly sheep manure, and Sargassum seaweed,” said Dr Henry.
“Over the lifetime of this solution, 103 000 metric tons of CO2 emissions will be removed every year from the atmosphere, by cars in Barbados driving on sargassum Bio-CNG instead of gasoline.”
The renewable energy researcher explained that the project is aimed at addressing three key issues: keeping the Sargassum weed off the beaches; supporting the country’s goal of becoming fossil-fuel-free by 2030 and strengthening energy security through local fuel production; and solving a waste problem by reusing rum distillery wastewater.
Startup funding for the venture comes from the Blue Chip Foundation, New York City, in the amount of $200 000; another $200 000 from Venture for Climate Tech, also in New York City; and $600 000 from the European Union.
The researcher disclosed that a network of eco-stations will eventually be set up across the island to allow motorists to buy the biogas.
“Similarly to how you can walk up to the dispenser at the gas station and get gasoline, it’s as simple as walking up to the bio-gas dispenser instead and getting our fuel. It will be the same technology as CNG in terms of the hardware. The hardware is the same as the CNG hardware, but the energy inside of it is renewable,” disclosed Dr Henry, whose ongoing research at the UWI focuses on sustainably generating usable power output from natural resources of the Caribbean Sea, such as Sargassum seaweed and ocean waves.
“I can’t speak for Esso or Rubis or whoever, but the fact of the matter is that the technology is similar. So you can imagine you can go to your eco-biogas station instead of your regular gas station. The hope is to have our network become comparable to the gas stations’ network,” announced the innovator.
She said while her biogas company is hoping to set up that network, her team – which includes director Nigel Henry, a data scientist at CIBC FirstCaribbean International Bank, along with technical advisers and student researchers – is willing to work with the “players on the ground”.
Dr Henry pointed out that the bulk of energy in Barbados is driven by fossil fuel which is liquids and gases in pipelines and valves.
“When you switch your sector over to a renewable source, it helps to have biofuel still utilising those pipelines and pumps and the human resources that operate them. So, biofuel can really be a game changer for a small island, any small island. In fact, we don’t have the land space to grow grass but having this massive biomass [sargassum] coming to us from the ocean…it just makes sense and it is a game-changer,” she asserted.
“Before, in renewable energy conversations you would primarily hear [about] PV and wind, but sargassum could change that story and we could see much more of the renewable energy share go towards biofuel; which makes sense that the transition away from fossil fuel is an easier transition energy source.”
Dr Henry is also of the view that Barbados can become the renewable energy centre of the Caribbean based on the lead role it is playing.
“If Barbados is leading the rest of the region and it seems to understand the production of biofuel from sargassum seaweed, Barbados can really become an energy centre for the region, because…a lot of biomass is coming towards us. I know it is a crisis but we are treating it like a massive opportunity to tap,” she said.