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Energy Startups Find Good Starting Conditions in Austria

Austria actively promotes the objective of developing a safe, sustainable and competitive energy system through its research funding, which also enabled the launch and development of a technology startup such as NextFuel in the country. The good underlying conditions offered by Austria as a business location include the research tax credit of fourteen percent as well as the close links between the scientific and business communities. NextFuel develops and produces a CO2-negative fuel in Austria serving as a replacement for coal. It is made of rapidly growing plants such as elephant grass or industrial wastes, for example from sugar production. The development is particularly interesting for regions such as East Africa, South Africa and South America, where the fuel can be produced at low cost and in high volumes, but also for industrial countries which are pushing ahead with plans to stop the use of coal, such as the Netherlands, Germany and Japan. 

Energy turnaround as an innovation driver

The debate focusing on terminating consumption of fossil fuels has been carried on for many years. However, it has gained considerable momentum over the last few months. The underlying reasons include new initiatives in Germany and the Benelux countries to prescribe a strict time schedule for coal-fired power plants, the biggest users of the fossil fuel coal, to convert to renewable fuels.

The output of these power plants cannot simply be replaced by wind power or solar energy. The ongoing base load supply with electric current will be required as well as the heat generation for industrial and district heat customers from these power stations in many places. However, in the light of the long service life of many of these facilities, there is considerable interest in achieving the required reduction of CO2 emissions by converting these plants to renewable fuels i.e. through biomass in the broadest sense.

There is already substantial demand on the part of many sectors (paper, construction, energy) in Europe for biomass, particularly wood. However, the many millions of tons of renewable resources required to enable the changeover of large coal consumers are not simply available in Europe alone. But how can one procure large quantities of biomass from other parts of the world in an economical manner? The material is biologically active and decays when stored for a long time. Compared to coal and oil, it contains a lot of water and little energy. So how should one turn it into a globally tradable bulk material?

Good breeding ground and start-up support for innovation

A research team already asked this question ten years ago. It set up an industrial pilot plant with the help of funding provided by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency FFG from the Climate and Energy Fund and prominent industrial partners (e.g. Andritz and Polytechnik). Now the plant in Frohnleiten, Styria has been demonstrating for several years how large quantities of solid fuels can be produced even from such cheap materials as straw and rapidly growing energy grasses and serve as a full-fledged substitute for the fossil fuel coal.

The patented process developed for this purpose is based on the principle of torrefaction. Biomass is roasted at high temperatures under the exclusion of air and subsequently densified. In this manner the high energy content is generated along with the good transport and storage suitability (even outside), which industry knows from using coal.

The decisive factor in the changeover to renewable fuels is to establish a reliable delivery chain between the raw material sources and users. Large volumes of previously unused biomass converted into high-quality fuel with the help of NextFuel are available based on the waste generation of the sugar industry (bagasse) in South America or uncultivated land areas in East Africa or South Africa where elephant grass or other energy grasses can be planted. Numerous Asian countries also offer very good preconditions.

Austria as a research and development location

Thanks to its research and development site in Austria, NextFuel can supply comprehensive proof of the industrial usability of each of the existing raw materials. The creation of a sample quantity for a large user itself requires processing several hundred tons of material. Based on the data generated during a typical testing sequence, international plant manufacturers can create the complete design for the reliable production of up to 400,000 tons of a clean coal replacement at a site. NextFuel relies on a dense network of specialized biomass laboratories in Austria contributing their longstanding experience in applied research as well as the collaboration with industrial companies whose expertise is integrated into the ongoing development of plant components.

The technology was presented at the World Climate Conference COP 24 in Katowice in December 2018. NextFuel has embarked on the path of pressing ahead with Austrian technological know-how with the help of international investors. Swedish investors already came on board in 2016. Since then the company has been called NextFuel. We can also recommend this approach to other companies. Austria offers good starting conditions for an internationally operating company.

More information is available at www.nextfuel.com

Wolfgang Moser, Chief Technology Officer of NextFuel AB, Stockholm, and Managing Director of NextFuel Technology GmbH, Vienna.

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