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Move2LowC: Bio-based Fuels - Interview with Manuel Gil Antunes

Co-funded by COMPETE 2020 and led by A4F - Algafuel, S.A., the Move2LowC project mobilizes Universities, R&D Institutes, SMEs and large companies, to cooperate with the aim of increasing the use of aquatic biomass (microalgae), residual forest biomass and industrial effluents for the production of biofuels, in a logic of Circular Economy. In an interview with COMPETE 2020, Manuel Gil Antunes, Managing Director of A4F, spoke about the project and explained its main motivations, its differentiating element, the challenges overcome and the results already achieved.

Manuel Gil Antunes | Managing Direct of A4F

How was the Move2LowC project born?

The imperative of the energy transition invites us to question the current means of transport and to adopt new concepts, such as soft mobility, sharing, intelligent mobility and sustainable mobility. The latter includes the replacement of fossil fuels with electric drives, but also the innovative solutions offered by hydrogen and bio-based fuels, particularly where the potential for electrification is more limited, as in the case of aviation and heavy passenger and long-distance freight road transport.

It is precisely in this field of low carbon fuels that the Move2LowC project is positioned, driven and coordinated by A4F - Algafuel.

We believe in the favorable impact that hydrogen and bio-based economy can have in economic, social and environmental terms, and we are sure of the high potential that green hydrogen, biogas, microalgae biomass and also the use of other renewable bio-based raw materials have for energy production in various sectors.

What were the main motivations?

Move2LowC assumes itself as a response of the bioeconomy to the challenge of climate change and as an opportunity to transform the economic model through the creation of sustainable alternatives, not only based on electricity, in the area of mobility.

This project embodies the innovative ambition to produce, on the one hand, renewable hydrogen and natural gas for heavy goods and passenger road transport and, on the other hand, biofuel for air transport. Further developments will lead to extending the usefulness of these technologies to maritime transport as well.

The interest and scope of an initiative of this nature are clear to see in the enthusiasm with which Portuguese industry has become involved in the project. It is enough to say that, at the time of the launch, in late October 2020, the project gathered the participation of no less than 22 partners, among big fuel consumers, like TAP, industrial companies and entities of the national scientific and technological system.

With Move2LowC we seek not only to develop technological rationale, but also to outline a business plan that supports the investment in the production of renewable gases and biofuels on a commercial scale.

The co-financing obtained from the COMPETE 2020 Program, under the incentive systems for research and technological development (mobilizing programs), in the amount of 8.2 million euros, for a total investment of 11.2 million euros in the area of energy transition, reflects not only the scientific merit and the innovative potential that the project contains, but also its strategic importance in the framework of the Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality 2050.

The project has 2023 as its deadline and aims to develop innovative solutions in biotechnology for the production of biofuels for aviation, either from microalgae biomass, or through fermentation using forest waste.

As for the roads, the bet is on green hydrogen and the production of renewable natural gas.

What do you consider to be the differentiating element in the Move2LowC project?

The biggest differentiation of the Move2LowC project lies in the focus on mobility solutions in the sectors where electric mobility presents the biggest limitations: heavy land transport and aviation. Another relevant differentiation lies in the virtuous combination between the blue bioeconomy (marine and aquatic biomass) and the production of renewable gases (hydrogen and biogas) to find different answers to common applications.

All this in addition to the fact that it is a demonstration project aligned with the challenge of the green transition, the European Ecological Pact, has a very high innovation component, and is being developed in Portugal, with the participation of universities, R&D institutes, industrial giants, but also SMEs with great potential.

We have, therefore, involved around a strongly mobilizing project a set of actors with leading roles in the Biotechnological and chemical industry, in applied research in Portugal and in the mobility sector, all committed to an innovation agenda that proposes to offer new mobility solutions (Move) with low carbon emissions (LowC).

How is the project structured?

Move2LowC is organized in four major complementary subprojects, which are being developed in the following areas:

  • Research & Innovation in biorefineries for aviation biofuels from autotrophic microalgae;

  • Research & Innovation in biorefineries for aviation biofuels by heterotrophic fermentation using residual biomass of lignocellulosic nature (waste from the forestry industry);

  • Research & Innovation in technologies and processes for the production of green hydrogen for mobility solutions;

  • Production of renewable natural gas.

These four subprojects, three of which are led by A4F and its subsidiaries Biotrend and HyChem, are complementary and synergistic, as I mentioned. They aim at greater biomass utilization, the use of technologies to convert biomass to biofuels, the development of replicable biofuel refining technologies, and also to reduce the impact and increase the sustainability of transportation companies.

The fourth sub-project is led by DouroGás and aims to produce biogas.

In a joint effort between HyChem and Dourogás, the project foresees the installation and operation of a Hydrogen refueling station for heavy vehicles, at HyChem's Industrial Park in Póvoa de Santa Iria, which should be operational by the beginning of 2023.

Move2LowC has also the merit of attracting companies potentially interested in replicating the developed model of biojet fuel production or renewable hydrogen on a larger scale.

What are the main challenges you are facing in the development of the project?

A project of this size, and with the ambition I have highlighted, faces several scientific and technological challenges, namely:

(i) the articulation between a large number of co-promoters (18) and partners (7), including entities of different size and typology (large companies, SMEs, universities); ii) the short implementation period (32 months) for a large and ambitious project. Taking into account that the project started in 2020, its execution has been affected by the effects of the pandemic, both the restrictions that it brought (for example, periods of confinement) and the disruptions in the distribution chains of materials/equipment, which have led to significant delays; iii) the technological challenges inherent in developing innovative bio-based fuel production solutions.

However, A4F and its partners in the consortium are committed to meeting the goals and key objectives of the project, translating into replicable and scalable results the ambition that brought together so many relevant partners around a common vision of the future.

Among the results achieved so far, are there any that you would like to highlight?

I have no way to answer your question other than through technical language. I ask for the best understanding of the readers, because we are talking about a biotechnological research work and the project team would not forgive me if I used any less correct expression.

During the first year of the project, A4F successfully developed and optimized a first procedure for the production of aviation biofuel from microalgae. In other words, a process for producing microalgae biomass in an open, intensive production system using ADP Fertilizers' nitrogen-rich effluent as a growing medium.

A4F has installed a conventional raceway-type open reactor at ADP Fertilizantes plant in Salgados da Póvoa (Alverca do Ribatejo), which has been operated to promote growth of microalgae for bioremediation of this effluent.

Simultaneously, the production of microalgae biomass allowed LNEG to start HTL (Hydrothermal Liquefaction) tests to produce bio-oils.

The work initially carried out on a pilot scale allowed the development of a cultivation medium formulation and the establishment of an operating routine, which then allowed the transfer of the algae cultivation to the ALGATEC Eco Business Park, in Póvoa de Santa Iria, where the trial began to be conducted on a large scale, currently in practice in a raceway of 2200 square meters of photosynthetic area.

At the same time, important steps were taken in terms of compression technology and making Hydrogen available for heavy transport, with the development of the filling station prototype.

Support from COMPETE 2020

The project, which has an overall investment of 11.2 million euros, is supported by COMPETE 2020 under the Research and Technological Development Incentive System (Mobilizing Programs), involving an eligible investment of 8.2 million euros which resulted in a FEDER incentive of about 4.6 million euros.


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