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Sunday Times Newspaper Features Re3 Success Story
4th July 2009

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Where there’s muck, there’s a green machine.

It may look like rocket science, but Debbie Boyd has a simple way to tackle waste.
By Sandra O’Connell

WHEN Debbie Boyd talks rubbish, people listen. The Northern Ireland based self-styled “environmental entrepreneur” is the founder of Re3, a firm that claims to have found the holy grail in terms of sustainable waste management.

By using a combination of modern computer technology and old fashioned steam engineering — the kind that powered the industrial revolution — Boyd is hoping to pull off a revolution of her own.

At its newly built facility in Limerick, Re3 is perfecting an alchemy that can transform high volumes of household and commercial waste into biomass fibre, which is a clean, green alternative to fossil fuels.

At the heart of the plant are two enormous autoclaves, of the kind originally developed to sterilise surgical equipment.  These were designed by Tom Wilson,
a British steam engineer and Boyd’s partner in Re3, who pioneered the energy recovery process. Although they work like pressure cookers, what the machines most resemble are Nasa space rockets lying on their side. The autoclaves “cook” waste in a matter of hours, sterilising recyclables such as cans, glass and plastics, and turning organic matter into a brown biomass fibre, which is then ready to be turned into pellets or logs. What remains is odourless, clean and not unlike peat.
“In many ways, what we are doing is producing a speeded up version of how peat is laid down and pressure-cooked over millennia,” said Boyd. As a fuel or power generation source, the end product is about half as efficient as coal-based fossil fuels and 1½ times as effective as wood pellets.

The autoclave process is energy efficient and capable of handling non-hazardous municipal, commercial, industrial and agricultural waste.  In doing so, it can cut the volumes of waste destined for landfill by 80%. What’s more, autoclaving opens up the prospect of going back to existing landfill sites and mining them as a resource for biomass fuel.

For Boyd, a down-to-earth northerner, getting to the point where she has an industrial scale demonstration model of her vision has been the culmination of more than a decade of research and fundraising.
Yet in many ways, her journey has just begun. The Galvone plant in Limerick is, she says, a research and development facility meant to prove to investors and prospective customers that the system works.
“Getting to this point has been a hard slog,” said Boyd, whose career began in a Portadown scrap metal merchants and ended up as chairwoman of the Waste Management Advisory Board of Northern Ireland.
“I realised very early on that the environment was going to be big business,” said Boyd, who also holds an honorary professorship from the University of Ulster.

The average Irish household generates 1.5 tons of waste each year and despite sustained efforts, less than one-third of that is recycled, the rest going to landfill.  It is only as landfill costs increased, and the adverse effects of global warming became more apparent, that her ideas for autoclaving alternatives gained traction. To date, she has raised 15m Euros from Irish, British and American investors. Mark Ennis, an Airtricity millionaire, has invested 2m Euros in the company and Brian Shanley, a Waterford engineering entrepreneur, has invested more than 1.2m Euros.The Limerick plant, which has permit to treat 50,000 tons of waste year, is a joint venture with Greyhound Recycling and Recovery.

Proving the technology was a doddle compared to getting the funding. “I found it incredibly difficult,” said Boyd.
“Government agencies couldn’t support something that wasn’t already in place and succeeding and, unfortunately, I went looking for bank finance just when the American subprime lending disaster was hitting, which of course slid into the credit crunch. I realised that private-sector funding was really the only way to go.”
One of her first backers was Brendan Hughes, a US-based property developer originally from Tyrone.

Having built her plant, the real work is getting under way. “You can’t introduce process efficiencies until you have a process and a product in place,” she said.  “You have to build a demo in order to find the optimum operating conditions
and what we have here is the first industrial scale plant of its kind in the world. Tom Wilson, our engineer, had previously built a five-ton autoclave system in Wales. This one has a 20-ton capacity.” She is aware of intense interest in what she is doing. Autoclaving has become a hot topic in Britain with Glasgow city council recently announcing plans to invest £135m (157m Euros) in three autoclave waste facilities. FLI Environmental, the owner of 3NRG in Waterford, plans to build a commercial scale waste autoclave facility in Wales.

“Interest in the environment generally is growing rapidly,” said Boyd. “Enterprise Ireland estimates the green energy sector to be worth four times the global software sector.” But as long as it was cheap to send to landfill, investment in alternative green energy solutions was minimal.  Moves to reduce the amount sent to landfill, in line with EU directives, plus the possibility of raising taxes on landfill, have changed matters.  “With climate change becoming more apparent there is a huge opportunity to create the kind of clean, green efficient technologies that the world is demanding and, although we know we have competitors in autoclaving watching what we are doing closely, we are the only ones up and running and we intend to take advantage of that,” said Boyd. Such has been the interest inRe3’s system that the company has shifted its strategic focus.

Originally it intended to position itself as a standalone waste management company. Instead, it has positioned itself as a technology company that will generate revenues from licensing its technology and providing a turnkey installation service for waste companies— or local authorities — who want to buy in. As such, the ease with which the process can be scaled up or down in size is one of its biggest advantages. The company is also looking at developing commercial products such as pellets and fire logs. With her Limerick autoclaves which have, in the best steam engineering tradition, been given names—Zoe and Julie—busy turning muck into brass, the big task facing Boyd is telling people about it.

“Our main challenge is to develop a strong international sales team. Unfortunately, the response I most often encounter is ‘it sounds too good to be true’. Now, with the Limerick facility up and running, people can see it for themselves,” said Boyd. “There is also a misperception that autoclaving has something to do with incineration. It doesn’t, there isn’t a single flame involved.” Overall, she is more optimistic than ever. “For years, I felt like John the Baptist crying in the wilderness.
Then, suddenly, waste has become the most pressing issue facing every boardroom from Bill Gates to your local authority,” she said.
And to all her mates who teased her as Steptoe and Son, “when I started all those years ago”, she’s set to have the last, potentially very lucrative, laugh.

The Sunday Times has a readership of more than 3.1million people every week.

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Richhill, Co. Armagh
N.Ireland BT61 9LF
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