Sustainable Future, Latin American Innovation Transforming Organic Waste

Sustainability and circular economy are some of the guidelines that Colombian company Biotérmica Innovación focuses on. Specialized in transforming organic waste into biomass, with significant growth opportunities both in Colombia and internationally, the company is optimizing its processes by integrating digital technologies, becoming more accessible and competitive at both local and global levels.

The application of technology for transforming organic waste into energy and biofuels is currently a crucial effort in the search for sustainable and renewable energy sources. Converting organic waste is part of a series of technologies that not only contribute to waste management but also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, providing a sustainable alternative to conventional fossil fuels.

Achievements in this field include successful pilot projects and commercial-scale facilities that demonstrate the viability of transforming organic waste into valuable energy resources, contributing to the transition towards a more circular and sustainable economy. Iván Barragán, co-founder and CTO of Colombian company Biotérmica Innovación, discussed in this interview how the company addresses innovative processes and incorporates additional digital technologies to improve efficiency and sustainability.

What are the efficiency levels of Biotérmica Innovación compared to other similar businesses in the transformation of organic waste into biomass, such as Refocosta or sugar mills using sugarcane bagasse to produce ethanol, and how scalable is your technology?

The significant difference we have compared to other alternatives in the market is that our plants are mobile. We don’t transport biomass to the plant; instead, we bring the plant to the biomass to treat it at the source, allowing for a potential processing capacity of up to 25 tons of material per day. We have high efficiency in carbon transformation, achieving nearly 98 percent carbon recovery processed in the reactor. This surpasses conventional biomass use, such as sugarcane bagasse in sugar mills, increasing the efficiency and energy content of our products. Additionally, this enables logistics cost reduction by up to fifty percent.

What type of organic waste does Biotérmica Innovación use as raw material?

We have processed all types of organic waste classified as residual biomass. This includes complex cases like treating sludge with high moisture content from Wastewater Treatment Plants (PTAR), where we also use thermal waste for drying, achieving complete pathogen elimination through pyrolysis. Typical cases include urban organic waste, agricultural harvest residues, waste from food and paper plants.

Where do you obtain these organic wastes, and how do you ensure a constant and reliable supply?

The most permanent source is organic urban waste from small and medium-sized cities, where we estimate approximately one kilogram per day per inhabitant. However, establishing a plant in these locations is viable only with a long-term contract – more than five years. On the other hand, we obtain permanent residual biomass from agro-industries and permanent cycle crops, such as oil palm, sugarcane, coffee, cotton, and banana. Another fraction comes from waste in food and animal slaughter plants, and an essential alternative is the case of PTAR, where the dimension is more extensive, reaching up to five hundred tons per day, requiring multiple plants.

For pyrolysis, do you produce bio-oil, synthesis gas, and biochar, or do you have any specificity in this process?

From the same residual biomass, our plants simultaneously produce Bio-oil, Biochar, and Synthesis Gas. We can adjust the proportions according to the customer’s preferences, though recently, we have had a preference for Biochar production due to its carbon capture condition, soil amendment properties, and the replacement of some traditional fertilizers obtained through composting. With Bio-oil, we have achieved significant calorific power close to diesel, suitable for use in internal combustion engines, burners for boilers, and dryers.

Regarding synthesis gas, is the ultimate goal to generate heat, electricity, biofuels, or chemicals?

Synthesis gas is the non-condensable fraction exiting our reactor, usually consisting of low molecular weight hydrocarbons. The traditional chemical composition is 20% carbon monoxide, up to 15% hydrogen, and up to 5% methane. We have identified that starting from residual biomass, low-cost hydrogen production is possible, costing less than one dollar per kilogram. By increasing the hydrogen proportion, we can add steam at high temperatures to the reactor, cracking the material. This Synthesis Gas has applications in fuel, thermal, or in gas-fired power plants tailored to synthetic fuel. We have experience with bifuel systems, where diesel plants maintain a pilot diesel for ignition, adjusting to the engine’s operation and timing to consume Synthesis Gas and generate electricity.

What is the company’s energy production capacity?

We are a startup with two years in operation and eleven operational plants. Our technology scalability aims to process over 30,000 tons annually within five years, with a batch of equipment close to eighty decentralized distribution plants. Currently, we are setting up a fifty-ton per day plant for organic waste from scrap fragmentation in a steel mill, which will be one of the most significant experiences in synthetic fuel and pyrolytic coke or char generation from waste.

It is a rapidly growing market, especially from an environmental perspective, with the benefits of replacing traditional fossil fuels. With Ecopetrol, for example, we are developing a pilot project with the idea of creating an energy communion around waste, obtaining fuels, generating electricity, and Synthesis Gas for cooking processes. Similarly, we aim to achieve tri-generation, meaning part of that energy converted into waste heat used in absorption cycles to produce cold and maintain cold chains. The applications are extensive, but at the moment, we are focused on the transformation of local residual biomass.

How do you manage the environmental aspects associated with the organic waste transformation process?

We are targeting various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the technology, it is possible to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. By substituting fossil fuels and achieving carbon capture, we support Goal number thirteen on Climate Change. In the water objective, number seven, related precisely to material recovery, biochar is part of activated carbons commonly used to purify water sources.

As our technology is mobile, we also contribute to the goal of Sustainable Cities, as it can be located in places generating significant biomass quantities, such as markets, landfills, residential complexes, educational centers, and shopping malls. Thanks to the smaller plants processing up to one ton per day, this is achievable.

And obviously, there is the objective of Renewable Energies, so these products replace conventional fossil fuels. This is a green source of energy, meaning that in a similar refining system, we have green chemistry replacing traditional chemicals from fossil fuels. We also have a clean energy source when using the products obtained from the gasification and pyrolysis of residual biomass for thermal, energy, and electrical applications.

What additional technology or innovative processes does Biotérmica Innovación use in this organic waste transformation?

We have mobile plants equipped with the Internet of Things. This allows us to remotely control their operations and monitor their performance. We are considering implementing Artificial Intelligence so that the material to be processed in the pyrolysis plants can adjust the process to temperature, humidity, particle size conditions, and maximize performance.

In that sense, what contribution has AZLOGICA® made as a strategic partner of Biotérmica Innovación regarding technological aspects of production, and what has been the scope of that partnership?

From the beginning, AZLOGICA® has supported us in instrumentation and control, specifically in the Internet of Things. Since our technology is mobile, monitoring and remote control of the equipment’s operation, such as ignition, shutdown, gears, and commissioning, are crucial. This has been possible using AZLOGICA® technologies and available platforms. They have played a key role in allowing us to communicate with a plant in a mountainous area near Nevado del Cocuy, for example, through a sim card that sends data to our equipment and, if necessary, to a mobile phone, setting alerts and information on the plant’s Key Performance Indicators (KPI).

For new plants, we see the opportunity for AZLOGICA® to help us implement Artificial Intelligence so that the plant itself learns from the material being transformed. For non-homogeneous waste, it could adjust its operation by scanning the conditions and variabilities of the materials entering the biomass, such as composition, humidity, particle sizes, autonomously adjusting variables in the reactor process. This includes times, temperature ramps, flow control, and discharge point control.

It is also important that the Artificial Intelligence application allows adjusting the process so that the finished product, whether Biochar, Bio-oil, or Synthesis Gas, maintains stable conditions for subsequent use. In other words, the chemical composition should fall within the ranges and values of the technical specifications used by the customers. The Synthesis Gas should also maintain stability in its composition and flow, and the BioChar should have a higher carbon content and desired particle size conditions for various applications. This is the next step we are taking with AZLOGICA®: Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, along with their support, aiming to have our customers adopt these technologies, become familiar with them, and get the most out of our equipment.

What platforms and services does AZLOGICA® use for this project?

The platforms we use are Things Manager®, Ecodrive®, and DeepEye®.
These platforms allow us to acquire data from reactors with advanced sensors, measuring calorific power, utilization and efficiency records, and operational and physical and chemical variables of water before and after processing, and its efficiency (OEE – Overall Equipment Efficiency).

We use telecommunications technologies from 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G cellular networks to satellite, and currently, we are testing low-earth orbit satellites. This implies there are no connectivity limits.
We use AWS services for all this: S3; AWS API Gateway; DynamoDB; AWS Lambda; Elastic Container Registry; Cognito; Bedrock, and other third-party tools for Gen AI.

How do you think significant advances in Generative Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things will further optimize these processes in the future?

The use of Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things in our plants, integrated with similar applications that customers may have, for example, for smart agriculture, poses interesting challenges for the future. Similarly, we have identified the opportunity to integrate our process plants with control and operation systems of food processing plants, where there is a significant generation of waste. Thirdly, we see a trend towards decentralized generation, with decentralized energy communities, and as these units will be located and managed by the communities themselves, they will require a higher degree of automation and control for their operation to be as simple and reliable as possible. Remote monitoring will allow us to see the simultaneous operation of different equipment in the console, identify early alerts to make adjustments or schedule maintenance. It will also allow us to analyze productive yields, valuable from a cash flow perspective when these units are in the production phase, and provide operational and financial control over the entire operation.

Do you have any comparison parameters regarding the adoption of these digital technologies compared to the competition?

We have two international benchmarks that are also applying this technology, one in Germany and the other in Spain. Indeed, their plants have achieved a very high level of automation and absolutely reliable operation. The challenge for us is to make this technology accessible in Latin America, which has different conditions from Europe, both in CapEx and OpEx for projects.

We want to be much more competitive and ensure that these technologies have no entry barriers. In this sense, the application of Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence technologies will increase efficiency in processes for continuous and reliable operation. The same technologies, which in European and North American markets have different investment cost levels, can reach our countries with the same technological level but with much more adapted economic performance to our conditions.

What are the main challenges that Biotérmica Innovación faces in this organic waste conversion industry?

Biotérmica Innovación’s technology is part of the technologies working in the circular economy, recovering energy, water, and material flows for the same cycle in nearby locations. This is generating highly impactful sustainability outcomes related to creating new green businesses. It has a significant social impact, introducing new materials that replace polluting ones and have environmental effects like greenhouse gas production. Economically, it is creating new income sources and recovering losses from wasted materials and organic waste that used to be discarded. We are entirely committed to sustainability and the circular economy. We see that at this moment, this generates many opportunities, and in the coming years, it will be a very important trend, not only in Colombia but worldwide.

What role do you think Biotérmica Innovación plays in the evolution of this transformative industry, and what are the future expansion or diversification plans?

We aim to expand the use and application of our technology in other market segments in Colombia. To begin working not only with residual biomass but also with other materials that can be transformed through pyrolysis and gasification. For example, there is a significant opportunity with packaging, and we already have a first demonstrative plant in the application phase. Another aspect is to venture into international markets. There is a great appetite for this technology in Asia, and we have managed to present ourselves last year at the GIF – Global Innovation Forum – in Osaka and this year at the City-Tech in Tokyo. We see opportunities there to form strategic alliances with large corporations that allow us to scale this technology to other production levels and in other countries.

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