Qube Renewables: Utilising dry anaerobic digestion to provide a clean cooking solution in humanitarian settings
QUBE designs, manufactures and sells products based on anaerobic digestion (AD) technologies which have the potential to provide clean energy whilst effectively disposing of waste. The AD process uses bacteria to break down organic matter to generate biogas that can be used for cooking and for generating electricity. The process also produces digestate, a nutrient-rich substance that can be used as a fertiliser.
Whilst the use of wet feedstocks is well-established, QUBE’s project is pioneering in two key aspects: Their innovative dry AD system allows for the use of feedstocks with higher dry matter, such as the crop residues readily available in many farming communities, allowing the technology to be used with a wider range of applications. One particular application that QUBE is exploring is clean cooking in humanitarian settings: the reliance on carbon-based fuels for cooking in refugee camps comes with severe health and environmental drawbacks. QUBE is therefore analysing the scope and potential for deploying their dry AD technology within this often overlooked market.
With financial support from Energy Catalyst, QUBE is working with a farm in Kenya to produce cooking gas from the anaerobic digestion of residues produced from growing flowers for commercial sale. The project is a collaboration between QUBE (the technology provider), Grants Biotech (in-country partner and site operator) and University of South Wales (academic partner). This cooking gas will be supplied to the workers and organic fertiliser to the farmers. QUBE will deploy a containerised dry AD system which will be constructed from standard shipping containers. Support from Energy Catalyst has proven instrumental in helping the company understand the challenges and opportunities for biogas production within the humanitarian sector in East Africa.
Dry digestion in sub-Saharan Africa has a huge potential to utilise agricultural wastes that are otherwise left to rot, which is a tremendous waste of a potential source of energy, given it can provide clean affordable biogas for cooking and local power generation.
Mark Clayton, Technical Director, QUBE
In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), it is estimated that 850 million people still rely on inefficient cooking fuels and stoves (IEA, 2018). Burning biomass for cooking contributes to deforestation, air pollution and health problems caused by exposure to smoke and emissions. For most people, there are few, if any, alternatives.
As Laura Patel, an energy specialist working with Energy 4 Impact, explains, “Access to clean cooking remains an acute challenge in sub-Saharan Africa. Biogas can offer a clean and modern cooking experience, but must be coupled with suitable operational and business models to make it affordable and sustainable.”
Agricultural waste is one of the most abundant biomass resources in developing countries, yet it is often burnt or left to rot, so the capacity to turn agricultural waste into clean fuel averts those harmful environmental impacts. Whilst biogas technologies have been widely promoted, biogas-producing systems are often unaffordable for many rural households. In some cases, these technologies are also poorly operated and maintained, leading to sub-optimal performance and consequent reluctance to adopt the technology.
Wet anaerobic digestion is an established technology that uses feedstock with a high moisture content. Dry anaerobic digestion, on the other hand, is underutilised, but QUBE’s dry solution can be used with a much wider range of feedstocks, opening up new opportunities to generate clean energy for agricultural producers and communities. QUBE’s system has the potential to reduce the cost of biogas through the increased efficiency and flexibility it offers users. Converting standard shipping containers into digestors provides a modular solution that is easy to transport and scale. The QUBE team has now installed a laboratory onsite in Kenya to furnish the analytic data needed to finetune the technology and optimise the digestion process.
As Mark Clayton, Technical Director of QUBE explains, “Dry digestion in sub-Saharan Africa has a huge potential to utilise agricultural wastes that are otherwise left to rot, which is a tremendous waste of a potential source of energy, given it can provide clean affordable biogas for cooking and local power generation.”
QUBE now aims to develop this technology further to make it robust and country-specific, developing local assembly facilities to meet demand and provide employment opportunities.
Assessing humanitarian markets
Energy demand in humanitarian contexts is expected to rise in the coming decades, creating an opportunity for sustainable biogas energy solutions to address the power and cooking needs of displaced and vulnerable people. Following on from experience gained from working with the Red Cross, QUBE has identified energy access in humanitarian settings as an underserved area where their products (both wet and dry AD) could bring potential impact.
To support QUBE’s project, Energy Catalyst completed a comprehensive assessment of potential opportunities for QUBE’s products in the humanitarian market, outlining the current status of energy and sanitation, key challenges and opportunities, example projects and key players. Energy Catalyst identified appropriate implementation models for operating in displacement settings, several key partnership opportunities, and viable funding routes for QUBE’s continued solution development. QUBE consequently approached several major humanitarian organisations involved in displacement settings in East Africa and Asia. They are now running models to show how QUBE’s technology mitigate the negative impact of traditional wood fuel, reduce costs and provide sanitation.
“Energy Catalyst undertook a detailed study into the opportunities in this sector and presented us with data that was widely-sourced and compelling. It is still early days for QUBE in this sector, but there is real interest in our technology so far. Support from Energy Catalyst really helped galvanise a project we envisage will create positive environmental and humanitarian impacts once we’re in a position to scale up the technology,” says Jo Clayton, Managing Director at QUBE.
Photo credit: Mia Foster | Story x Design