Published On: Mon, Mar 17th, 2014

European olives feed biofuel innovation

Olive oil in a bottleScientists and engineers at Vienna’s University of Technology are laboring over a shiny steel construction standing almost two storeys high. It’s a new generation “gasification plant,” which the university pioneered a couple of decades ago. It turns biomass into gas, and in Austria and a number of other European countries, that gas is used to run generators and produce electricity.

The problem operators now face is buying biomass to feed these power plants at a price which makes them competitive with other renewable and fossil fuel energy sources. With prices for wood and biofuel crops on the increase, the European Union is funding a project called  which aims to turn the pomace – what’s left of the olive after its oil is pressed out – into biofuel.

“When you look at the olive mill operator he wants to get as much as possible out of the olive, and he tries everything he can to get as much out if it as possible,” Stefan Müller, a senior researcher at the university’s  , told DW.

Stefan Müller shows off the gasification plant at Vienna’s University of Technology

Müller is part of a team exploring the energy potential of olive pomace. He lines up bottles of the olive residue on his desk. Some are identifiable as the remains of olives, others look more like dark beach sand. Müller calls the dark sand material “olivine,” and explains it’s the feed stock for the gasification plant.

“At the end we have these residues and there isn’t much olive oil left in there. So this is a kind of waste material from an olive mill, but it still has quite a high energy content.”

More than just a canapé

The Phenolive project, co-funded by the European Union, involves pressing every last drop of value out of the olive. At the Phenobia Laboratory, a start-up enterprise begun by the University of Bordeaux, scientists also play a role in the Phenolive project. They are identifying compounds which can be taken from the olive pomace after it has given up its oil and before it’s turned into energy.

“The laboratory specializes in the analysis of phenols in different types of raw materials for finished products such as cosmetics, food supplements or food,” Director Xavier Vitra told France’s LaBiotech web site. He added that extracting the polyphenols will add value to the pomace.

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