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As the adage goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. That’s the idea behind two projects that are taking food waste and algae and using them to generate electricity and biojet fuel, respectively. Both are examples of the innovation large companies are bringing to bear as they explore renewable energy options.

The most common sources of renewable energy in Japan are solar, wind, and hydroelectric, so biofuel-based approaches stand out in a crowded field.

The first project is a joint venture called J Bio Food Recycle. It’s a collaboration between East Japan Railway Company (JR East) and JFE Engineering Corporation, producer of a broad range of industrial projects, from steel bridges to biomass boilers and power generation plants.

The venture, launched in 2016, seeks to transform food waste into electricity. The food waste is collected from JR East train stations and surrounding shops in the Tokyo area and Kanagawa Prefecture, and from food manufacturers in the southern Kanto region. It is gathered and transported by two organizations: JR East Environment Access Co. Ltd., a division of JR East, and JFE Kankyo Corporation, a division of JFE Engineering that has been involved in the waste treatment and food recycling business for more than 40 years.

The destination is a recycling facility and power plant in Yokohama, where a machine removes any packaging before it is treated. At the plant, waste is fermented by microorganisms in large digestion tanks and, over a period of weeks, the resulting chemical reactions produce biogas—a mixture of methane, carbon dioxide, water, and hydrogen sulfide. This biogas can be used to drive engines that power generators, which in turn produce electricity.

JFE Engineering has a proven track record in waste treatment, having constructed more than 150 waste treatment facilities. Two of their recent projects include a garbage waste biogasification facility in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, and a biomass power plant in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. The company designed and constructed the recycling facility and power plant for J Bio Food Recycle at a total cost of ¥3 billion.

As a representative of JFE Engineering explained, the idea behind J Bio Food Recycle grew out of restrictions in place due to legal requirements. “According to the Food Recycling Law, we are supposed to recycle station food waste into the following products, in order of priority: feed, fertilizer, and methane. Most station food waste has already been cooked, which means that contaminants such as salt, oil, wrapping paper, or toothpicks might be present. This means that the waste cannot always be recycled into feed or fertilizer. However, recycling into methane can be done even with station food waste.”

Put into place in 2001, the law is formally known as the Promotion of Utilization of Recyclable Food Waste Act.

According to a statement released last year by the joint venture, some 50 tons of food waste are collected at JR East stations and shops connected to the stations every day. In the past, this waste would have been burned, because it was mixed with packaging materials. The Yokohama recycling facility has the capacity to process up to 80 tons of food waste per day, and the resultant biogas can generate 11 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year—roughly equal to the amount of electricity used by 3,000 Japanese households.

J Bio Food Recycle would begin selling the electricity through Urban Energy Corporation, one of JFE Engineering’s affiliate companies. According to JFE Engineering, the project is on track to begin sales by August 2018. The electricity would be sold under the feed-in tariff scheme, which allows utilities to purchase electricity that has been generated using renewable energy. The electricity is sold at contract prices and for a fixed duration, and end-users pay a surcharge that helps cover costs. In general, the fixed contracts and the end-user surcharge help defray some of the high costs that go into developing electricity that has been produced through renewable energy.

For both companies involved in the joint venture, the focus on food recycling goes beyond just financial concerns. It connects to a greater desire to have a positive effect on the world’s environment. As Yusuke Yamawaki of JR East public relations explained to The ACCJ Journal, “We are interested not only in food recycling, but also other policies which would contribute to protecting the global environment, such as resource circulation and creation of renewable energy.”

Meanwhile, JFE Engineering looks at the project as a way of breaking new ground, in more than one way. “JFE Engineering has never invested in a food recycling business with the JR East Group. Our company’s vision is to create the foundations for life. Until now, our main business has been to create energy plants, waste-to-energy plants, steel bridges, and other projects. But, recently, our business domain has expanded to not just creating but also supporting life. With this in mind, this project is very important to us,” said a representative of the company.

According to a representative from JR East, although no advertisements have been placed at or around the stations to promote the recycling of food waste, the joint venture expects the recycling rate to increase by 10 percent thanks to this project.

As far as JFE Engineering is concerned, this is just the beginning. In the long run, they plan to increase their invol­vement with engineering, procurement, and construction projects that will lead to the establishment of a “low carbon and recycling society.” If the project is successful, JFE Engineering could take part in further collaborative ventures with JR East. They also hope that the scheme inspires similar initiatives around Japan. “Our project could promote food recycling not only in the Tokyo area but in other big cities, too.”

Another company that is using an unexpected ingredient as an energy source is euglena Co. Ltd., which produces a wide variety of products from microalgae called Euglena. One of their latest projects makes jet fuel from these algae.

As Chika Izumi of euglena’s corporate communication section explained, the impetus behind this project came from a need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the field of air transportation. There is a push in the airline industry to cut down on the use of carbon dioxide. While it is possible to develop new aircraft or change in-flight operations, a shift to using biojet fuel can have a great impact on this industry.

Petroleum and metals conglomerate JXTG Holdings was approached by All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd. (ANA) and Japan Airlines Co., Ltd. to develop aviation biofuel. JXTG then reached out to euglena, which has been doing research into the material since 2010. “We are the first company aiming to construct a pilot plant for the production of aviation biofuel, and to supply renewable aviation biofuel for practical use in Japan,” Izumi said.

Strange as it might seem to get jet fuel from microalgae, Izumi pointed out that the oils and fats in Euglena actually have a carbon structure that is highly suitable for jet fuel. She added that the jet fuel will be made from other types of microalgae and nonedible vegetable oils. Because Euglena absorbs carbon dioxide during the process of photosynthesis, using it to make jet fuel leads to a net decrease in greenhouse gases.

Construction on euglena’s pilot plant began in June 2017. With the support of ANA, construc­tion engineering company Chiyoda Corporation, petroleum products specialist Itochu Enex Co., Ltd., Isuzu Motors Ltd., and the city of Yokohama, euglena plans to use the extracted aviation biofuel and biodiesel fuel.

The plant is to be completed by the end of October 2018, with operations beginning by early 2019. Fuel will be ready for commercial use by 2020. The company has also reached an agreement with Oriental Air Bridge Co., Ltd., which will make them the first regional airline company to use the biojet fuel.

In general, the renewable energy options that many large organizations in Japan are investigating don’t include biofuels. As Mike Benner, managing partner at business consultancy MB Partners and vice-chair of the ACCJ Energy Committee explained: “Companies participating in RE100, a group of influential global businesses that are committed to using 100 percent renewable energy, are actively searching for renewable sources of energy. In Japan, this has largely been solar, wind and in some cases hydroelectric power.”

In addition to the type of renewable energy, how that energy is being shared is going through a period of transformation. “For example, virtual power plants are now becoming possible, in which distributed energy resources, such as residential solar or battery-stored power, are pooled together to provide power on demand,” Benner added. “Blockchain technologies are being deployed to allow consumers to trade energy between one another—or peer-to-peer—rather than through a utility.”

Whether or not more companies will be adding biofuel solutions to further balance Japan’s renewable energy mix remains to be seen, but projects such as J Bio Food Recycle and euglena’s biojet fuel offer exciting glimpses of the future.

Alec Jordan is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.