Startup Profile: Biogas & Electric – Supporting Sustainable Ag through NOx Emission Reduction
March 16, 2011 | Robert Puro
Seedstock is always interested in learning more about who’s out there starting companies in the sustainable agriculture space. Today we were fortunate enough to speak with Seth Burns, CEO of San Diego, CA based Biogas & Electric LLC.
Burns is a fourth generation cattle rancher with an MBA who hails from Big Timber, Montana and possesses firsthand knowledge of the potential for biogas, (the gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter such as livestock waste in the absence of oxygen), to promote sustainable agriculture. Biogas production systems can reduce methane emissions, act as replacement for fossil fuels, and help farms generate their own electricity thereby reducing overhead.
Burns conceived of Biogas & Electric to address major pain points in the Biogas market, namely, the costs and challenges of meeting stringent NOx regulations set forth by regional air quality boards to legally operate a biogas production facility.
Background on Biogas Production Facilities, Anaerobic Digestion, and NOx
Biogas production facilities, found on farms, at landfills, and at wastewater treatment plants use a process known as anaerobic digestion, which is a series of processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. As part of an integrated waste management system, anaerobic digestion reduces the emission of methane gas, CO2, and “non-methane organic compounds” or NMOCs into the atmosphere. Anaerobic digestion is also used as a renewable energy source as the process produces a methane and carbon dioxide rich biogas suitable for energy production. Additionally, the nutrient-rich slurry, or digestate left over from the process, can be used as fertilizer.
NOx is nitrogren oxide (NO or NO2), which is produced during combustion that takes place in Biogas production, and is 300 times more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2.
In September of 2009, Burns joined up with Mike Matelich, a PhD chemist, to find a way to develop a technology to reduce NOx emissions. The two applied for and received an SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant from the USDA in March 2010 to produce a proof of concept. Waste Management, Inc. also stepped forward one month later with additional funding.
Their research resulted in the development of a low cost NOx reduction solution called NOxRx™ that Burns says “doesn’t use any external catalyst or agent to reduce NOx” that is generated by agriculturally based anaerobic digestion facilities and wastewater treatment plants.
Typically, biogas facilities rely on external NOx reduction catalysts that, while effective, must be purchased over and over again at a considerable cost.
In tests using diesel exhaust, Biogas & Electric’s NOxRx™ technology reduced NOx at a rate of 95%. NOx emissions decreased from 200 parts per million to less than 10 parts per million for a period of 20 hours. And to top it off, 97.5% of SO2, or sulfur dioxide was consequently taken out of the exhaust.
Biogas & Electric is currently in the process of raising funds to run a pilot project to prove that its technology can work at scale. Burns says he has six customers ready and willing to deploy Biogas & Electric’s technology at their facilities.
A Large Potential Market
The potential market for Biogas & Electric’s product in the US is huge. According to the EPA there are nearly 8,200 dairy and swine operations in the U.S. and 1,000 wastewater treatment facilities that could support biogas recovery systems. Each one of these systems must meet stringent air quality standards in order to operate, and this is where Biogas & Electric can help by allowing these biogas facilities to reach their potential to collectively generate more than 13 million megawatt-hours (MWh) per year and displace about 1,670 megawatts (MW) of fossil fuel-fired generation.
Although promising, the development of the biogas market faces a few hurdles not the least of which is the high cost of building a biogas facility in the U.S. However, as more facilities are built and the biogas market scales, costs will fall and the market will grow. To help move development along, the USDA currently provides grants to help dairy and hog producers implement on-farm anaerobic digesters systems to produce biogas.
Burns is optimistic that the demand for biogas digesters and, in turn, Biogas & Electric’s NOx emission reduction technology, will continue to grow as electricity prices rise and facility construction costs decline.
Supporting Sustainable Agriculture
According to Burns, one of the primary drivers behind the development of Biogas & Electric’s NOx emission reduction technology is his desire to support sustainable agriculture – something the company does in the following ways by:
- Promoting anaerobic digestion systems, which in turn reduce methane emissions (methane is 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2) from dairy farms and concentrated feedlots
- Helping farmers generate their own electricity thereby reducing overhead
- Supporting a replacement for energy generated from fossil fuels, subsequently reducing CO2 emissions
The End Goal – BACT Status
Burns says that the ultimate achievement for Biogas & Electric would be to obtain BACT (Best Available Control Technology) status for its NOx emission technology. BACT status is awarded by the EPA and determines what air pollution control technology will be used to control a specific pollutant to a specified limit. According to Burns, “the best control system wins the market.”
The Potential Reward
In response to a question regarding impediments to fundraising, Burns stated that, “As with all investments in new technology, the risk is commensurate with the reward.” If Biogas & Electric can get its pilot program up and running, Burns believes prospective investors will see a 10x return on their investment over a 5-year period.