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  Business Times 11 Sep 07
Coming clean with green solutions

SMEs here moving aggressively into waste-free technologies, writes Matthew Phan

PICTURE this: your personal computer, recently discarded, is sent to a plant where, along with hundreds of other items of electronic waste, it is crushed into little pellets barely two mm in size.

The pellets are sampled, then fed into a chamber where the plastic or rubber content is liquefied. The melted plastic turns into coke (the solid fuel), liquid hydrocarbons and gas.

The remnant material consists largely of precious and base metals, such as platinum or copper, which are extracted for re-use. The only leftovers are bits of cloth fibre which will not burn off - although these made up less than 0.01 per cent of your machine.

It is not the latest California start-up that works this magic, but a company listed on the local stock exchange, Enviro-Hub.

Besides E-Hub, several SMEs based in Singapore have moved aggressively into clean technology.

What is clean tech?

In a recently published overview entitled The Clean Tech Revolution, authors Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder, define it as 'any product, service or process that delivers value using limited or zero non-renewable resources and/or creates significantly less waste than conventional offerings'.

Such a broad definition means that the label is slapped onto many things.

Given that Mr Pernick and Mr Wilder - respectively the founder and editor at Clean Edge, a research and publishing firm - are based in the western United States, it comes as no surprise that they concentrate largely on headline-worthy technologies like solar, wind, intelligent electricity grids, buildings and so on.

In Asia, with an infrastructure and construction boom under way and a strong base in electronics, petrochemical and other manufacturing, as well as agriculture, the market opportunities are sometimes less visible to the public.

Take Advanced Holdings for example, which designs and sells equipment used in petrochemical plants to clients like Sinopec and PetroChina. Advanced also monitors emissions from these plants, and, combining these skills, it can analyse the chemical manufacturing process and extract contaminants from the discharge during the process itself, says CEO Dr Kar Wong.

The contaminants, which include heavy metals like mercury or elements such as sulphur, can 'kill' the catalyst used in the chemical manufacturing process, Dr Wong says. With some catalysts worth millions of dollars, Advanced helps plants achieve higher efficiency by extending their lifespan.

Advanced also has licences from the likes of Dupont to make alkylate, a type of petrol that contains virtually no sulphur or aromatics, which means it burns clean.

It is far more expensive to produce than LPG - liquefied petroleum gas - but commands higher selling prices and better margins. With stricter regulations over vehicle emissions, such as the Euro V standard, more alkylate must be mixed in with gasoline.

The firm's alkylate business - which is focused on China - has grown by six times in the last two years, says Dr Wong.

Advanced is also experimenting with feeding waste gas from power plants into tanks containing algae - usable as high protein feed, or high-calorific fuel stock. The process reduces carbon dioxide emissions and speeds up the algae's growth.

Advanced has identified two technologies, and recently raised funds through a share sale in order to acquire one of them.

Alternative fuels

Another firm in the petrochem sector moving into clean tech is Boustead, which designs the boilers and heaters used in refineries. With a background in 'combustion technology', it is not difficult to extend this to burning other types of fuels in its boilers, including agricultural waste common to South-east Asia, like palm oil kernels, rice husks or timber waste, says CEO Wong Fong Fui.

Boustead aims to build small-scale power plants in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, where there are thousands of islands not supplied by a national power grid.

The growing market for large scale power plants of a few thousand kilowatts capacity requires huge capital and is a game for institutions and not service providers, says Mr Wong, but underlying that is demand for plants with an output from two to 25 megawatts, which are Boustead's sweetspot.

The key issue is financing.

Just as Advanced depends on tighter vehicle regulations for generating demand for alkylate, Boustead may depend on government assistance schemes to enable villages to pay for power plants. Alternatively, Mr Wong says that it may tie up with private firms that want to set up factories and need localised power sources.

On the other hand, Boustead is helped by the Indonesian government's drive to reduce fuel subsidies (which cost more than $100 billion in 2005). This has brought higher prices for diesel fuel, and a corresponding demand for alternatives.

One obstacle Boustead faces is that many engines and generators run on diesel and there has been little incentive to switch to new designs.

But this is an issue with clean tech at large - as Mr Pernick and Mr Wilder note, 'the infrastructure challenges of energy, materials, and water mean that the clean tech revolution will be a lengthy one compared with the almost instant revolution of personal computers, the Internet and wi-fi'.

It is also not yet clear whether so-called green solutions are necessarily the most efficient.

For example, in Europe and the US, electronic waste must be sorted by hand before recycling. This labour intensive process in expensive in the West, so European countries ship the waste to Asia for sorting. After the metal is extracted, the plastic is re-exported to Europe for treatment.

E-Hub's ability to convert plastic to energy means it can consolidate all kinds of e-waste, saving on sorting costs. It can also complete the entire recycling process here.

But on the other hand, its plants need to be 2.5 times hotter than usual to melt the plastic. This means more energy use, though it is partly mitigated by burning the gas and fuel generated by the recycling process itself.

Related articles in Singapore: reduce, reuse, recycle
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