“What inspires me is getting new, environmentally beneficial products into economic, sustainable production… I have a fantastic opportunity to do that.”
To cope with the rapidly growing demand for sustainable, renewable fuels for road transport and aviation, there has predictably been a corresponding increase in the number of producers attempting to make them. One approach that can produce excellent results is through the use of renewable feedstocks to create fuel, such as wood taken from sustainable sources. This week’s Bio-Based World News’ 5 Minutes With… interview is with an employee of a company that does just that, Neville Hargreaves from Velocys.
Coming shortly after Veloycys secured £4.9 million of funding to develop a waste-to-jet fuel project for the UK's Department for Transport, the business development director speaks to Dave Songer about the inspiration he has to work in the bio-based industry because of the huge environmental challenges that the world faces – particularly around climate change – along with his desire to use his chemistry background to help bring about change. Oh, and he even shares his 20-year vision on what he’d like the next generation of bio-based fuels to look like.
Dave Songer (DS): Welcome to 5 Minutes With…! Can you begin with a description about Velocys and what it is the company does?
Neville Hargreaves (NH): Of course, Velocys has developed proprietary technology to cost effectively produce sustainable, drop-in jet and diesel fuels from a variety of waste materials, including woody biomass and municipal solid waste at a scale that matches feedstock availability. Our technology is in use at ENVIA, the world’s first commercial smaller scale gas-to-liquids plant, which uses landfill gas to make renewable fuel and other products. Now we’re using our operational experience and capabilities to drive the development of additional biorefineries in the US and UK with our industry partners, from concept to full operations.
DS: That’s very positive. You’ve been involved in the renewable/bio-based industry for nearly 15 years now – how has it changed since then?
NH: In that time a number of technologies have matured to a point where they can commercially produce more sophisticated biofuels. The industry has become more mature, more mainstream – every oil major is looking to develop alternative fuels as part of their portfolio. And of course the regulatory framework has changed enormously over that time, with initiatives such as the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation in the UK providing a market-based mechanism to support the development of advanced biofuels projects, particularly to serve the sectors that are hard to decarbonise.
DS: What do you enjoy most about your role?
NH: What inspires me is getting new, environmentally beneficial products into economic, sustainable production. I have a fantastic opportunity to do that and I’m working with great people who are inspired to do the same thing.
DS: How about professional challenges – what would you say has been your biggest?
NH: I think everyone in the industry will recognise that the project I’m leading now is challenging because it’s innovative, groundbreaking and exciting. If successful, Velocys – with its industry partners British Airways and Shell – will bring the world’s first plant generating sustainable jet fuel on-line on a single site from waste. We recently secured the development funding for the next phase of the project, which included a grant awarded by the Department for Transport under the Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition (F4C). This next phase will involve a pre-FEED engineering study and site selection and permitting activities. We’ve made huge progress but there’s a fair way to go before a final investment decision is made.
A big challenge of that is we’re taking individually-tested technologies, including APP’s gasification, Velocys’ Fischer-Tropsch technology and standard refinery technologies, and combining them in a single plant. In doing so the aim is to divert hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year of post-recycled waste from ending its life in a landfill or an incinerator. The facility would produce enough fuel to power all of British Airways’ flights from London to San Jose, California and New Orleans, Louisiana a year. Even with our supportive partners the task ahead will be demanding; we’ll require a sophisticated approach to project financing, operational excellence, a huge amount of planning, engineering and preparation, along with some stringent risk management practices. Despite all that however, we believe that together we’re up to this challenge.
DS: What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the bio-based industry?
NH: In a word, education. I would say that a thorough grounding in a fundamental science or engineering discipline is as relevant today as it ever was; for so many jobs in this industry a technical background is extremely helpful. In selecting a company to work for at the start of a career I would advise people to choose a company that can follow through on its promises. Work with people with solid commercial experience and which have a product that has a clear path to commercialisation.
DS: You have a deal with Red Rock Biofuels’ biorefinery, can you tell me about that?
NH: As you probably know, Red Rock Biofuels (RRB) is developing a biorefinery in Lakeview, Oregon that will use forestry residues to produce 15 million gallons of renewable fuels a year. @VelocysPLC is licensing its Fischer-Tropsch technology into that project and in May we received a notice to proceed to begin manufacturing our reactors and catalyst for the project. The project is expected to deliver around £11.5 million ($15 million) in revenues to Velocys during the construction and early operation stages of the plant, with an additional £22.6 million ($30 million) or more over the life of the biorefinery. More than £4.6 million ($6 million) has already been invoiced and received from RRB.
This is an important milestone for Velocys; it’s our second commercial license sold. We see the building of this plant as validation of the commercial viability and bankability of Velocys’ technology. The order comes at a great time for us and it means we can strengthen our supply chains.
DS: You spoke at World Bio Markets this year – what did you cover and what did you get out of the show?
NH: I presented an update on our UK waste-to-sustainable jet fuel project and I was particularly pleased by the level of engagement and participation in the panel’s Q&A session – it feels good to have the backing of a supportive but challenging industry. When I looked more widely around the conference it was encouraging to see that the rigorous debate continued concerning the right set of regulations to balance sustainability and economic considerations. I think that really important as we undertake a massive transition of the energy industry and many others industries.
DS: Finally then, what is your favourite bio-based product?
NH: It wouldn’t be a bio-based product, but an evolution of one… what if, in 20 years’ time, Fischer-Tropsch technology used syngas generated from atmospheric CO2 (using renewable energy), instead of from gasification of wastes, to produce sustainable fuels? If that happened the sky really could be the limit.
DS: Thanks for being so generous with your time, Neville.
Read the last 5 minutes with… Dhivya Puri, senior technical lead at Fiberight.
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