Globally, we produce 2.12 billion tons of waste each year. It is then sent to landfill, where it produces toxins and gases which contribute to global warming and damage our environment. But what if waste could be recycled and used again instead? That’s exactly the solution that one of the companies on the Future 20 programme has come up with. Phycofeeds tackles waste pollution by using solar power to convert waste into different solutions which are then converted into a variety of commercially valuable products.
We spoke to Phycofeed’s founder, Dr Matt Pearce, to find out more:
In a nutshell, can you explain what Phycofeeds does?
The Phycofeeds process uses solar power to pressure-cook waste, and convert it into nutrients and bio-crude. The nutrients are upgraded into fish feed, and the bio-crude can be used to produce a range of products such as petrol and diesel. The difference is that it will be derived from waste, rather than from carbon underneath the earth, so there’s a dramatic reduction in environmental damage. The bio-crude can even be used to create plastics.
How did you come up with the idea?
Ever since my younger self in this photo, I have been interested in the power of solar energy. This is an image of my first solar cooker from the 1980’s. Integration of learned ideas from life experiences, plus my interest in fishing and growing food has led to thinking about how to integrate these technologies together.
What’s unique about the Phycofeeds process?
Solar power is already well established for electricity generation, but I wanted to make use of it for a new technology application which hasn’t been done before. Solar technologies don’t have to be restricted to producing electricity; they could also generate feed, fuel, nutrients and recycle waste in an integrated process. By-products that would usually go to waste are being recycled for another use, so it’s a complete circular system.
Where does the waste come from that is fed into the system?
It doesn’t have to be from one source. It could be plastic, agricultural waste, or sugarcane waste for example. Plastic waste is a big issue at the moment, and PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) which is commonly used to make plastic bottles has been tested in the Phycofeeds system, so that could be an exciting avenue to explore further.
How does your method of converting waste stop producing unwanted gases?
The increase in pressure during the Phycofeeds process alters gases into liquids. So unlike typical landfill waste which produces methane and carbon dioxide when breaking down, only small amounts are produced.
Who do you envision will use the Phycofeeds system?
It hasn’t been scaled enough to figure that out just yet, but it could either be waste processers, or feed producers.
Why did you choose solar power for this process?
It’s already a scaled technology for electricity production, so why not use it for waste processing and feed production as well. Of course, it’s also a renewable energy source, and it was important to me that the whole process is sustainable.
Could you explain how you use microalgae?
Algae are a very diverse range of organisms covering everything from seaweed to microalgae*, and they’re in all the oceans, lakes and rivers of the world. They can supply fish nutrition very well. For example, there’s a specific species of algae, which produces oil similar to long chain omega 3 unsaturated fatty acids, which is good for fish.
The Phycofeeds process generates single molecules that can be used for fuelling the fermentation processes of micro-algae production or bacteria, which produces ingredients and nutrients that can be monetised as fertilisers and fish feeds.
*Microalgae are microscopic algae consisting of a single cell
What have been some business challenges for you?
Trying to scale the technology, and getting it close to a technology readiness level which is commercially attractive. IP and maintenance have been a challenge as well; the patent has had to be strategically filed early on. With the Future 20 programme I’ve had help on the legal side and document preparation for potential investment, so that’s been really helpful.
The Future 20 programme is a bespoke incubator programme run by Allia Future Business Centre comprised of 20 of the very best UK tech for good and social ventures that are addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.