From Biomass to Biogas

The world we live in is one of extremes—between the rich and poor, the educated and illiterate, the free and oppressed. Perhaps the most striking extreme, however, is that between food waste and starvation. Nearly 800 million people today are starving, and one out of every six children in the developing world is malnourished. Undernutrition contributes to roughly half of all cases of infant mortality, and nearly 70 million children in the developing world are forced to go to school hungry. The problem of food scarcity is prevalent and persistent, despite global publicity and awareness campaigns illuminating the issue at hand.

Ironically, one of the main contributors to food scarcity is food waste; the World Food Programme estimates that about one trillion dollars worth of food is thrown away each year. People in rich countries discard roughly as much food as the entire net agricultural production of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the quantity of post-harvest food waste generated in sub-Saharan Africa roughly equates to four billion dollars, which was more than the amount of money the region received in foreign aid in 2011. Food waste in and of itself is a major problem—it generates some 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, which would make it the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, after the United States and China.

German startup, Entrade, aims to tackle these issues. The company makes compact power plants that are mobile and easy to set up. In a process called ‘pyrolysis,” biomass is heated up to extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment, converting into gases like carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Therefore, cheap and bountiful waste inputs are converted into clean gases that can be used for power in even the most remote of places. In many developing countries, farmers simply don’t have the capabilities to prevent their produce from going bad in the first place; electricity is scarce and refrigeration is largely unavailable. That’s where Entrade enters. It tackles multiple issues at once: the problems of both preventing starvation by giving people the ability to store their food, and halting food waste by using surpluses to generate energy. Entrade’s biomass input can also be mixed with plastic waste, meaning that plastics that would otherwise be thrown away may be used to create clean energy. The startup converts this into pellets that are then fed into the machine and converted into clean gas, producing cheap and environmentally-friendly electricity.

Potential problems in products like Entrade’s do exist, however. The current cost of its mobile power plants is approximately 250,000 dollars, which is far too much for farmers or even governments in developing countries to widely adopt. Entrade claims that mass-producing its product will lower its cost—potentially to as low as that of a small car. Another issue is that, until Entrade devises a way to convert raw biomass—rather than biomass converted into pellets—directly into energy, the cost of shipping food waste to factories for pelletizing outweighs the potential money saved from producing cheap energy. Finally, Entrade is developing software that will alert the company if machines are malfunctioning and will allow it to remotely fix these problems. While it does also envision training local experts capable of locating and fixing product defects, Entrade’s business model increases developing countries’ reliance on technology and expertise from developed countries, which is counterproductive to the goal of bridging the gap between First World countries and Third World countries.

Entrade is promising; it provides a radical new way to produce clean energy by tackling food waste and the starvation that comes from it. It has the potential for creating the conditions necessary to lift people out of poverty by allowing them to better store their produce and thus give them the ability to sell more of it for higher profits. Issues exist, including costs and reliance on technology and expertise from the developed world. Only time and Entrade’s willingness to innovate will determine whether the start-up grows or fails. If it grows, it has the potential to revolutionise food supply chains and some of the many issues that plague hunger-stricken developing countries.