XFuel hopes to sail past biofuels’ troubled past with modular reactor design

Biofuels are the sirens of renewable energy, luring startups with enchanting promises of enormous markets, from aviation to trucking and shipping. Companies just can’t help throwing themselves at the problem, and more than a few have been dashed to pieces in the process.

One new startup, though, hopes it’s Ulysses in this tale, able to sail past the rocky shores that have sunk more than a few of its predecessors.

XFuel is pinning its hopes on a modular refinery design that it says can produce replacement fuels for marine shipping and diesel vehicles with a carbon footprint that’s up to 85% lower now and possibly carbon-neutral in the future.

Today, the Dublin-based startup announced an €8.2 million investment round led by AENU, a new German VC firm, and joined by Union Square Ventures and HAX/SOSV.

XFuel is currently making marine- and diesel-grade fuels and developing aviation fuels.

“It is a direct replacement for the fossil counterparts,” co-founder and CEO Nicholas Ball said. “The focus here was to develop a technology to be able to produce fuel at a comparable or lower price point than fossil fuels. We went down this R&D path for a number of years, a lot of trial- and-error-type work.”

The result, he said, is a demonstration plant in Spain that “proves out the technology that we have and the modularity that we’re trying to encompass here.”

The heart of XFuel’s work revolves around what the company calls mechanical catalytic conversion, which takes plant material and uses heat, chemical reactants and friction to help break it down. (Ball, when pressed, wouldn’t be more specific than that.)