Founding a company requires nerves of steel and lots of support but design engineer Matthew Crothers says he got the assistance he needed from Co-Innovate to turn his idea into a feasible business.
Matthew, co-founder of JMA Systems Ltd., had background professional experience working with renewable energy systems, and his business partner Alastair Hewitt had been involved in developing alternative fuel systems within the gas industry. They had seen other renewable energy systems in operation using woodchip and biomass but none that were operating solely off untreated poultry litter. Together, they believed they could combine their skills to design and develop a bespoke gasification system that could turn poultry litter intorenewable energy in the form of heat and electricity.
The idea, they foresaw, had multiple benefits. The waste poultry litter which previously had little or no value, would become a valuable source of sustainable green energy, reducing costs for farmers and offering a potential new revenue stream from the sale and supply of surplus electricity generated to the national grid. The system would also be more environmentally friendly than existing methods of poultry waste disposal. Some unexpected benefits were also revealed when they put the idea to the test with the help of their Co-Innovate academic and business partners.
“The process we proposed to develop, and are now using, is a gasification technology system, coupled with a combined heat and power (CHP) system,” said Matthew. “We had never seen a CHP system working using poultry litter before, only using wood chips and biomass. We saw the potential to develop a system to take poultry litter from broiler poultry farms and use it as a heat and power source. At the minute poultry litter is being taken away from farms as a waste product and there are lots of issues with how it’s being disposed of. Our project also aimed to address the cost of energy. When we first started, it wasn't as acute an issue as it is now but we were trying to push towards green technology and sustainability anyway, to generate energy from waste using the poultry litter as a fuel source from the farm, to heat and power the farm itself so that it becomes more energy self-sufficient,” he said.
Matthew and Alastair founded JMA Systems to develop their idea with the support of Co-Innovate. Matthew said that being part of the Co-Innovate programme allowed JMA Systems to bring other partner companies in on their project and gain the support of a university partner. Co-Innovate funded and supported the company in researching, developing and designing a prototype poultry litter gasification plant. The partner companies they worked with - OHM Engineering and Mulmuf Ltd - manufactured the various subsystems and prototypes.
“We pulled together knowledge and experience from a number of different industries and sectors and built a working demonstration plant,” said Matthew. “The university did a lot of techno-economic studies, as well as modeling and simulation experiments using their simulation software; testing everything at every stage of the process. By working together, we were able to prove that the theory works in reality. An advantage of the process is that even the resultant Biochar left-over from the gasification process can be used as a high-grade fertiliser or soil conditioner on the farm, which is something we discovered working with the University of Ulster. The biochar can also be sold off as an added revenue stream. Being linked to a university has been very advantageous, strengthening the project from a business perspective, giving it kudos and credibility,” he said.
The design engineer and business founder said the cross border partnerships they formed with other companies through Co-Innovate were also hugely valuable.
“We were able to partner with companies that had more experience with some things than us. For example, Mulmuff had experience making engine silencers and had the skills and expertise to make heat exchangers, but it’s not something they were actually doing, so it has opened the potential for them to branch out into making these products. And the same for OHM - they were subcontracting for various larger companies and we went to them asking them to make things that have never been made before. They had the skills to do it and now it's given them a wider potential product portfolio going forward.
“Utilising the Co-Innovate partnerships also helped us develop business contacts and potential customers. Overall, the Co-Innovate programme has been of great benefit to us. It was a very thorough process and being part of it brought the project forward to a level we couldn’t have brought it to without Co-Innovate’s support. The funding, mentoring and partnerships enabled us to build the working demonstrator plant which we hope to take to the next stage, to get it on the farm.”
This cross-border project was made possible through the Co-Innovate programme, which is supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).