Saturday, 1 March 2014

I haven't been so excited since the birth of my daughter, 31 years ago.

Very few event's register as monumental in ones life. Of course, there are the BIG 3 - Births, Marriages and Deaths; but not very often many more.

This week, is one of those monumental weeks.

I received word today that the Torrefaction System was loaded on the Boat in Norfolk, Virginia, and is powering its way across the Atlantic, destined for Liverpool Docks. This has become my new "baby".

Now I'm probably one of very few people who could get excited about the arrival of a bunch of steel and wires; pipes and ducts; and miscellaneous bits of kit. However - THIS is the culmination of 5 years of effort, energy and struggle, to get to this point.

It has taken the efforts of a large and divers group of people, to turn what once was a dream, into the reality. Scientists, Engineers, technicians, financiers, etc. have all come together in this quest.

The new home is being prepared as we speak. The feedstock is being lined up, and the truck scheduled. All things being equal, by the end of the month, we'll be in full operation.

Once we commission the unit, it will produce a steady supply of smokeless chips, on a daily basis. These will then be run through the pelletiser or briquetter, and then be sent off to their respective customers for field trials in a multitude of burners and boilers.

The feeling of anticipation is one of a young child, the week leading up to Christmas. I can hardly contain my excitement, and have gone over the operations and procedures a hundred times now; checking and re-checking, to make sure that nothing is missed.

What the Big Deal? Well - for the first time, the UK will have a supply of Biomass Fuel, that is a much cleaner burning and lower emission version than unrefined wood chips and pellets. It will also have the first drop-in Bio-Coal replacement for fossil coal, that can be added to power station fuel supply chains, with no modifications.

For the first time, adulterated post consumer wood waste will be able to be consumed in virtually any boiler, without needing a WID Compliant system.

For the first time, there will be a low emission biomass fuel option, which ensures that air quality is maintained at all times, and that the appliances perform to their listed capacity.

I even have some baby pictures . . . Hope you enjoy them.

 All wrapped up and ready to go.

 Her new home in the UK.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A classic case of "LESS . . . is MORE"

We've all heard the old adage.

I apply it to my living conditions (I tend towards a rather Zen belief that is minimalist in terms of furnishings and accessories) poets apply it to prose, and wise men apply it to what they say. I've always subscribed to the belief that quality, is far more valuable than quantity.

There is however, one instance, where the literal sense of the phrase is apropos. And that instance is when it comes to Flue Emissions.

Almost anyone who has been alive longer than 30 years can remember the black coatings on most buildings in industrialized Cities throughout the UK. They can also remember the thick smog that was a consequence of the almost universal use of Coal as an energy source. While it certainly fed the Industrial machine, it did bring a lot of consequences that were less than desirable.

So - Something had to be done. And what was done, was to outlaw the use of smokey fuels (Like low ranking coal) and mandate the installation of treatment systems for any large Utility combusting the stuff. Now while this created a temporary boom for the flue gas treatment companies, the cost of meeting ever increasing (or is that decreasing?) strictness on emissions, has become a major contributor to the demise of many power stations. It simply was no longer economical to operate.

With the advent, and strong support by the government, of Biomass heating Systems, the hue and cry is emanating from the wilderness. People are starting to voice their opposition to the combustion of solid fuels,as they say it disrupts their peaceful and quiet enjoyment of life. Now, in this day and age, combustion technology has improved greatly, and new systems are very "clean" (relatively speaking) but there is still more work to be done.

The recent changes to the RHI, and the addition of a stringent set of Air Quality regulations, is a case in point. In order to meet its Carbon Reduction Objectives, the UK Government has targeted Biomass Heating as a primary goal. The increase in numbers of systems to the thousands, from the current tens of hundreds, is inevitable. Alongside that comes the inevitable.

The search is on for a solution.

What we do, is provide a partial solution. We refine wood fuel, into a Bio-Coal product, that has had most of the Smoke Causing volatiles removed from it. Early tests reveal a substantial reduction in NOx and PM emissions. What is substantial? How about 50% less, in some aspects?

Now - this is by no means the be all and end all, it is merely another rung on the ladder. However - we believe that this "smokeless" fuel is a much better option than the untreated alternative.

In what is becoming a highly competitive market, we believe that Manufacturers who can offer a "Low Emission" version of their boilers, will have a distinct competitive advantage. Tuning the systems to this new fuel, and partnering with a fuel supply Company that can provide long-term, low cost supplies is seen as a very convincing offer.

So - the times are changing. In the not-too-distant future, Smokeless wood fuels will be a reality, and the Market will now have a choice.

Which would you prefer? My guess is, that to you - Less, IS more.

Back to the grindstone . . . so much to do . . . so little time to do it.


P.S. - We're still looking to fill a few gaps in our Research program on small to medium boilers, so if you have one, and would like to take part in this research, please let me know.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Journey now continues, but in a completely different direction

It's been a very long road. Full of potholes, uphill stretches, and hazardous curves. The first part of the journey, is now complete though, and it's time to start the new journey.

In a couple of weeks, the Pilot Reactor will arrive in the UK. We've already secured a new home for it, and after 5-10 days of commissioning, it will be put into full time operation.

It's odd, but the drivers that I initially though would carry this forward seem to have faded into oblivion. We envisioned that torrefaction Technology would always be based on demand from Utilities (Like DRAX, E-On, RWE, etc.) when in reality - it's a completely different market that has emerged as the champion of this technology.

In the UK, a couple of years ago, the Government embarked on a subsidy program that was to transform the landscape, in terms of how people heated their homes and water. The Program was called the "Renewable Heat Incentive". In a nutshell, this is really a bribe, that lasts for 20 years, to coerce people to NOT burn Oil, or Gas, or Electricity. The net result? Well, about 98% of the systems installed are Biomass. (The remaining 2% is all of the other technologies combined.)

This, presents an interesting proposition. That is to say - that IF the Government is successful in achieving their goal of 20% reduction in Carbon Emissions by 2020, then somewhere in the neighbourhood of 5 million properties will need to be converted from Fossil Energy to Renewable energy.

Assuming that alongside the Renewable System, the developers implement a program of energy efficiency improvements (Insulation, draftproofing, double glazing, etc. - which is also supported by another subsidy called the Energy Company Obligation) then the average consumption will require about 2 tonnes of fuel per year. Even with my rudimentary grasp of mathematics, I can figure out that this totals over 10 million tonnes of biomass fuel per year, every year, for the next 2 decades.

All of this lead to a single conclusion. That is to say - that the Domestic and Commercial market was just as large as the Industrial and utility market for Biomass fuel. The difference however, is the value of that fuel. While utilities look at the overall cost of the fuel, compared to burning coal and paying the carbon penalties; D&C clients look at the comparative cost of the fossil alternative.

Now - I'm not naive enough to believe that people would switch fuels for the same energy rate (there simply isn't THAT much of a "green" conscience - however - they would switch for a substantial cost savings. In addition, they would also switch for some level of future price security.

Increases in the price of fossil energy in the UK are way out of hand. You can't open a newspaper these days without reading about "fuel poverty", exploitative pricing, or the big bad energy Companies jeopardizing little old ladies and forcing them to choose between heating and eating. While there is some truth to the hype, for the most part - it's nonsense. What IS real however - is that lots of folks are paying more than 10% (sometimes WAY more) of their disposable income to simply provide their family with a comfortable environment to live in. According to the very same Government - "fuel poverty" is defined as exactly that. "Paying more than 10% of your disposable income on energy. There are lots of folks here on fixed incomes (retired, etc.) and in many cases, their income is £70.00 a week or so. Which leaves us with a budget of roughly the cost of a pack-O-smokes, to provide all of their heat and all of their hot water weekly. Oddly enough, the subsidy regimes actually allow us to be able to do this.

Now, wholesale development of Biomass heating systems doesn't come without a cost. And that cost is air quality. You don't have to be very old to remember the "bad old days" of beautiful buildings covered in gooey black soot, and the "smoke (for which London is famous) that hung low over the city on a daily basis. Solid fuel combustion, AKA coal, was the primary heating source, for both residential and commercial properties. This was the source of the problem, so an act was implemented to ensure that only "smokeless" coal was burned. Funny how we seem to be going "back to the future".

In the UK, there is Legislation called the "Clean Air Act". It does what it says on the tin, and purports to ensure that the air quality of the Country is maintained. Now - Biomass boilers have to meet a certain maximum emissions profile, to be "exempt" from said Clean Air Act. Most are. The problem is - that when they were tested for their emissions, it was in a laboratory setting, using a very low moisture, specifically grade size of wood chip.

Enter . . . . reality.

The Client installs his shiny new Boiler System, and once handover is complete, is left to his own devices to find fuel for it. Being as times are tough, and he believes that wood chips are wood chips (Right?) he orders from the most economical supplier. The problem is that wood chips are NOT all created equal. So - what happens?

Well . . . he rapidly learns that the boiler efficiency isn't quite up to the Manufacturers claims - AKA - he's going through a LOT more fuel than the book said he should. Now - it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that a tonne of 50% moisture content fuel is 500 kg of fuel, and 500 kg of water (Which doesn't bring anything to the party.) To add insult to injury - said water has this nasty characteristic called "latent heat of vaporisation" which means you use a lot of the energy contained IN the fuel to boil it off, BEFORE you get any energy OUT of the fuel. Not to mention, the fans inside the blower are going 100 miles an hour to keep the stuff alight - and this is not leaving the boiler a lot of time to absorb the energy from the hot air stream, as it whizzes by the heat tubes. Net Result? 30 . . . maybe 40% efficiency.

To add insult to injury - there's a whole lot of nasty "stuff" in that air stream, which as soon as it contacts a cooler surface (like the inside of the Flues) it decides to condense as a sticky black substance (Most people refer to it as creosote). Of course - this acidic substance slowly eats the flue, and eventually results in system failure.

In addition - the emissions from the boiler shoot up like my blood pressure when dealing with anyone in authority (It doesn't matter if it's a Customs Officer at the Airport, or a bureaucrat at Town hall - I seem to have this aversion to that type of person.) and before you know it - the next door neighbour is screaming bloody murder - and calling the authorities. "YOU approved that Biomass boiler and now I can't sit in my back yard because the smell and the smoke is so bad. WHAT are YOU going to do about it?"

Hmmmm, what to do? What to do?

Now the Government, in their infinite wisdom, decided to decide to make a stab at avoiding this nasty set of circumstances. And believe it or not - they changed the RHI legislation. (WHAT a concept!)

What they said was - that IF you want to collect the RHI Subsidy (and we ALL want to do that) then you actually had to burn a fuel, that was the SAME as the fuel used when the boiler was tested in the factory. ESPECIALLY in terms of Moisture content. (They make 3 separate references to that aspect - so it must be rather important to them.) The Hew and Improved RHI now requires an emission certificate, mandating the quality of fuel that was used during the emission testing, and a maximum moisture content that the fuel is allowed to contain, in order to keep the emissions at the stated levels.

There's only 1 tiny little problem with this. By and large - biomass boilers are tested with fuel that is typically dried to less than 20% moisture content. You see, air quality is directly proportional to moisture content. The more wet stuff there is, the more nasty bits fly out of the top of the chimney. Needless to say, less is more.

The tiny little problem is that with the exception of a few micro-enterprises that actually kiln dry wood chips, THERE ARE NO UK SUPPLIERS of dry chips.

So - now we have a market, ripe for the picking. The government has implemented Legislation, that one could reasonably assume is designed to ensure that Biomass systems emit the lowest possible amount of nasty stuff into the atmosphere for you, I, and everyone else to breathe. One challenge is, that drying wood chips comes at a cost, and while there are some benefits to the end user, often times the cost-benefit doesn't add up. You have to bring more than just higher efficiency, to get the attention of the market. Our Smokeless fuel does just that. Not only does it burn cleaner, for longer, it also reduces emissions, reduces maintenance (lower fly-ash content) and increases the longevity of system components. I think that everyone will appreciate that these benefits are worthwhile.

This is where we come in. You see - when you run the feedstock through our system, not only does it significantly reduce the moisture content, but it goes one step further, and removes most of the smoke-causing volatiles as well. Having said that, I started looking at less expensive alternatives to "natural" wood chips. Lo and behold - up pops "Post Consume Wood Products" (Aka - Construction Demolition Timber, windows, time ex'd furniture, etc.). EUREKA! I shouted - but the joyous celebrations were to only last a short period of time.

As luck would have it, it would seem that we weren't the first people on this planet to recognise that you could grind up this stuff, and burn it in biomass boilers. (I know . . . I was just as surprised as you are.)

It didn't take too many conversations with recycling companies to realise that the plan was leading to a dead end, and that we'd have to be somewhat more creative in our thinking. HOWEVER (and there's always an "however") even though they couldn't supply us with Grade A reclaimed wood chips, they would LOVE to supply us with Grade B. Hmmmmmmm . . . What on EARTH is "Grade B"?

It turns out that Grade B is the same stuff as Grade A, (pre loved articles of lignocellulosic biomass) only, but it has a couple of friends along for the ride. These friends are things like Paints, Stains, Glues, and other aromatics. In their current condition - they are classed as "waste" - and for many people - need to be disposed of at a landfill, at a cost of £71.00 per tonne for the landfill tax. (we told these folks that we would be happy to get rid of their problem for a lot less than that!)

Here's where it gets interesting . . . . You'll remember that I said our technology was able to remove the smoke causing bits in virgin wood? Well, as fortune would have it - the technology also can remove the friends that are along for the ride with the recycled wood. PRESTO! we change the material from a waste product - into a fuel product (Something about residue to revenue) Imagine THAT!

In the end, our focus is now on this value chain. The Pilot Plant will arrive Mid-February; be commissioned by March 1st; and start operations shortly thereafter. (I have already put a picture of myself on the dining room table so my children can remember what I look like, because I don't think I'll leave the refinery for a while, once it's up and running. ;-)

Time to go and dust off my hard hat and high-visibility vest . . . I'm going to need them soon.

Be well.


Monday, 6 January 2014

The Rumors of my recent demise are grossly exaggerated

It was a long time ago that Mark twain uttered that quote. It was also a long time ago that I published my last blog entry.

2012/2013 was an horrendous pair of years for me. In the fall of the former, I was undergoing treatment for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. (A type of leukemia) This marvelous little malady saw me in and out of hospital, clinic and treatment centre for the better part of 6 months. After battling with the malady, it finally decided to give up, and go into remission.

Come summer of 2013, I was again struck down, this time because of a viral infection that attacked my tri-geminal nerve. Now, for those non-medical folks who read this, T-G Neuralgia is known as "Suicide Sickness". The pain is well beyond excruciating, and I know first hand why it was given that name. Unfortunately, treatment initially consists of massive doses of Narcotics (Morphine, and the like) which of course, renders one almost incapable of normal function. My consultant said that I certainly don't do things half way. I had the most painful virus (Shingles) in the most painful site possible.

In the end, after months of treatment, medication, and surgery, I am now back to something that resembles a normal life. It's as if the past 2 years have been wiped out of my history.

So - for those who thought I had died and gone to heaven . . . I'm sorry to disappoint you. Now, it's a case of "that which does not kill us, makes us stronger".

So - to pick up where I left off. 2014 will now be the year that we implement commercial Torrefaction systems in the UK. In conjunction with our partners, we will be building a pair of fuel refineries, that take in roadside clearing wood chips, post consumer wood products chips and convert them into Bio-Coal. The primary market for this production, as it will be quite small (8 to 16 KT per year) will be the residential and commercial heating market. (Mostly small District Heating Networks in the local area.)

Here in the UK, there is a major initiative, that the Government is promoting, called the "Renewable Heat Incentive". This is a long-term support mechanism, that provides a subsidy for Biomass Heating Systems. So far - it has been mildly successful (about 1500 systems at last count) but by all accounts, this will grow exponentially as people make the switch to a low-carbon future.

As torrefied fuel is a low emission version of its whitewood counterpart, there is a distinct advantage to using it. Of course, at that end of the market, there is also a very high value, which sweetens the pot. Air quality is one of the main drivers, and the Government is mandating that the emissions fall well within a prescribed set of parameters. Of course, Bio-Coal is ideal for this.

So the plan is to manufacture 1/3 for that market, 1/3 for the Utility market, and 1/3 for R&D.

In many ways, this is the step we have all been waiting a very long time for. Hopefully, it is the one that launches this marvelous technology on to the market, in our own small way.

Progress updates to follow . . . . .


Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Nuts and Bolts (Mass and Energy Balance) of torrefaction

Over the past couple of weeks, since my last post, I have had more requests for further information than I can recall receiving in the past 3 years.

As a consequence of those enquiries, I have decided to post a detailed outline of our technology, and it's operating prowess. 

It is fair to say that the single most important factor in torrefaction is not the Heating rate - but rather quite the opposite - it's the cooling rate that really matters. As we operate just at the edge of exothermic runaway, controlling the rate at which the reaction develops is critical.

This was probably the single most important revelation in the entire development process.

Most of the requests wanted to look at the "Nuts and Bolts" of our Torrefaction System. The VAST MAJORITY were interested in the performance characteristics of the system. These being:
  • Mass Balance
  • Energy Balance
  • Financial Sensibilities

From an operational point of view . . here are the numbers for our 2-Tonne per hour reactor.

Mass Input = 2790 kg (bone dry)
Mass Output = 2,000 kg (bone dry)
Mass Loss = 790 kg
Net mass recovery = 71.68%
Net mass loss = 28.32%
Feedstock Conversion Ratio = 1.395:1 (dry basis)
Energy In = 52.26 Gj
Energy Out;
Torrefied Fuel = 43 Gj (82.28%)
Tor-gas = 3.95 Gj (7.56%)
Total = 46.95 Gj
Energy loss = 5.31 Gj = 10.16%
System Efficiency = 89.84% (assuming use of Flue Gas for pre-drying) 

Now, from a financial point of view, achieving this level of performance doesn't mean anything - unless it can be done at a price that is sensible.

Our core system, very nicely achieves the $750,000.00 per tonne hour mark. It operates with a 2-man crew, and is capable of sustained performance - 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Densification, whether into pellets or briquettes is proven, without binders or other additives. In the not-too-distant future, I will be posting a video of the entire system, and it's operation from infeed, through reaction, through grinding, and finishing with pelletisation. I receive a barrel of the product this week, and I have to tell you - it is some of the best bio-coal I have ever seen. Ever particle - from the smallest - to the largest, was a consistent colour and texture. There were no pyrolised pieces, and nor "raw" pieces. 

I have to say that it does my heart good to see that we have finally succeeded in creating a system that is stable in operation, and produces the elusive homogeneous product.Now - It's Onward and upward to the next level. 


P.S. In answer to the few anonymous requests I have had to publish photographs of our system - we purposely choose not to. There are a number of reasons for this. If however - anyone wishes to contact me, and has a bona-fide reason to learn the intimate details of our technology; to visit and tour our facilities; or to receive sample production runs - then I am happy to share with them on a one-to-one basis.

Unfortunately - there are FAR too many people out there - just on "fishing" expeditions, and we have little time to suffer fools. It's roughly the same as the number of requests I get for "samples" of our product. I dare say that I could keep the shipping department VERY busy if I responded to every request for samples.

Unfortunately - we need to be somewhat selective about who we send this product to - as there needs to be a sound commercial basis for doing so. When you consider that the cost to date of manufacturing this product - is in the tens of thousands of pounds sterling per tonne - you can appreciate that even a kilo of product is very valuable to us. For our Utility and Industrial Partners - for whom we are making hundreds of tonnes - it is a product that they don't particularly want out in the marketplace. Those that have supported us throughout the process - are recipients of this "black gold". Those that now want to just jump on the bandwagon . . . well, I'm afraid without a quid pro quo, the samples and information simply won't be forthcoming.

The last time I checked - we were working on projects in America, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, and most recently - Malaysia. Once these are installed, commissioned and operational - there will be many opportunities to tour the facilities.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Teetering on the edge of greatness . . .

It's been a long and winding road.One that seems to have been all uphill . . . .

After 3 years, full of trails and tribulations, successes and disappointments, we are finally ready to take our technology to the market.

The reactor system we have developed with our many partners (and this project has embraced a LOT of people in getting from humble beginnings to where we are today) is FINALLY ready to go. It's working like a dream, and doing exactly hat it's supposed to.

I suppose it was necessary for the Market to catch up with the vision we created those 3 years ago. Torrefied fuel was only a theoretical product, that lived in the confines of a few labs and research facilities. While the promise of it being a panacea to the Utility industry has always remained; translating that into an operating commercial system was a far more significant challenge that ever imagined.

Along the way, there have been several casualties, and many MANY false starts. We are however, at a point now, where it's time to start putting systems together, and producing product at a Commercial Level.

Our Commercial Demonstration Reactor has proven itself to be a very stable and functional Platform. It isn't the most beautiful machine in the world, as it has been cobbled together out of mostly spare parts and bits of kit that were laying around (one of the economic realities of bootstrap development is that you have to forgo the notion of shiny new, custom manufactured equipment, in favour of scrounged parts and pieces) however it does what it is says on the nameplate.

We feed wood chips, sticks, twigs and sawdust into one end . . . and 20 minutes later, we extract a lovely, chocolate brown, torrefied fuel out of the other end. This is then ground into small particles, and pressed into pellets. VOILĂ€! Complete residue to revenue system.

As a next step - We intend to bid on the PGE tender for a Trial Torrefaction System at their Boardman, Oregon Power Station. The tender requires that the bidder have an operating system that is proven at the Tonne per hour level or better. It also requires proof of densification experience, as well as an inherent understanding of the properties of torrefied fuel, and their physio-chemical characteristics.

Now make no mistake - this tender is not an easy one to pre-qualify for. When I started looking around the planet for other developers that met even the basic qualification criteria, let alone - the advanced knowledge required, I found that they were few and far between. So - I'm comfortable that we have a reasonable expectation of success.

It would appear that the boys in Quitman Mississippi are further advanced than we are in their operations, so that becomes a second proponent. LMK energy, with their Thermya system represent a third, and of course - our friends at Topell would be the fourth. All, in all, the playing field isn't very large. There is however - one ace in the hole. If my friend Joseph J James of Agri-tech Producers decides to take a stab at this tender - then it will make the process very interesting. My guess is that he would be an IDEAL Candidate for this, and one who I'd love to see successful in winning the bid. (Joe? - what do you think?)

This week represents a transitional period for our Company. We have now started looking at developing projects in such divers locations as South Africa; Mozambique and Brazil. Bamboo, as a biomass feedstock, is certainly very attractive to a number of EU Utilities. Even though it's chemical composition is somewhat problematic, it has enough other environmental credentials to offset those shortcomings. My colleague at one of the Utilities we deal with said "it's only really a matter of the commercial consequence" of not meeting the Ideal Specification. There is certainly some comfort in the knowledge that this "not quite torrefied" product has a market too. This has been one of the greatest challenges. We have always worked to a very specific fuel specification, and meeting all of the requirements has been no easy task.

With the opportunity to have a "range" of fuel specifications, it opens up a whole new market.

Looking in my crystal ball . . . here is what I see . . . .

Commercial Demonstration Facilities will be built and operational in at least 4 countries in the next 12 months. These will include North America; Africa; New Zealand and Brazil.

Within 18 months - there will be at least 2, perhaps 3 Fully commercial facilities built - and these will be localised around the US North-East and Canadian West Coast. The facilities will inevitably be located on or alongside existing Ports, and likely occupy sites that were, in a previous life, wood manufacturing and processing facilities existed. Typically - Plant size will be in the order of 120,000 to 240,000 tonnes per year.

In spite of being developed for export purposes initially - the Systems in South America; Africa and Australasia will convert to local sales structures. Once the Systems are established, the Local Utilities and Industrial energy consumers will see the sense to acquiring their fuel, from a renewable source. They won't take the risk of being the Leader - but they will most certainly want to jump on the bandwagon, once it's in motion.

(There's something rather hypocritical about that - however such is the corporate way. I have said all along that NO ONE wants to be first through the gate - but EVERYONE wants to be second. We are seeing that now - from many different fronts. Now that we have a fully functional Commercial System, that meets the Economic requirements, Companies that wouldn't give us the time of day 2 years ago - now want to be our friend.)

It's been an amazing Journey, and one that is now coming to an end. We set out a long time ago, to do the impossible. Having little more than Desire, enthusiasm, belief and a whole lot of drive - we started. We never were more than "2 Guys and a Pick-Up truck". Now . . . we are one of the leading Torrefaction Companies in the world.

The end of one journey usually provides an opportunity to rest. Such is not the case here. While we have closed the book on the development; we now have to open a new book - that takes this to the market.

Funny . . but coming to the end is a bit anti-climactic, as there are greater challenges and opportunities in the next 3 years.

We will of course, bring you along for the Journey, as we chronicle the events; the successes; the set backs, and even the failures. . .

I'm looking forward with wide-eyed anticipation to tomorrow.


Sunday, 22 April 2012

30,000 views and growing

Never, in my wildest dreams, did I ever imagine that anyone would read what I had to write.

When I started this blog, it was little more than musings, about an uncertain future, of a previously unknown Industry.

In 2009, when I ventured into this world, I had no idea what lay ahead. It was a bit like walking through the streets of London as a new immigrant, in a thick fog, without a roadmap. The people I met along the way, that I asked for directions from, were sometimes of significant help, and other times only served to make my journey even more difficult - by sending me down passageways to nowhere.

One man early on gave me a lantern. He provided Inspiration, general guidance, and a sound understanding and wisdom. his words were inspiring and encouraging. There was a depth of knowledge and understanding, that I would only understand as the years went on.What I had - was energy, and desire, and a good sound knowledge of the basics. These attributes were nurtured and honed (sometimes at great expense - like Failure).

The first reality was - that there was no reality. As a nascent Industry - everybody was in the same position. There were no leaders (only those who professed that position). The field was quite small at the time, and has grown substantially since then.  3-years on, the same paradigm still exists.

I suppose that the forays into all of those back alleys and hidden places, revealed far more to be about what "wasn't" - than what "was". To say that I spent hundreds of hours in research would be a gross understatement. It was far more like thousands of hours. Every single bit of information available on the subject, no matter how inconsequential or trivial it first appeared, was subjected to assessment, scrutiny and analysis. After all - there was no definitive - only speculation.

Very quickly - patterns started to appear. (By the way - there is wonderful book, written by a group of California Architects - Christopher Alexander et al - called "A Pattern Language" - whose format is the basis of what's to follow.)


This product is, without doubt, the single most desirable renewable fuel for energy generation that has EVER come along. There is not a single utility that isn't looking for this product as a coal-replacement. There is however, the limiting factor that Utilities will only accept an alternative - if it meets the financial objectives of the pre-existing. This is yet to be proven. Many people have formulated wonderful, if fanciful, financial models that seek to substantiate the increased "value" of bio-coal (through "offset" and "avoid cost" allocations) however - the reality is bio-coal needs to compete with fossil coal, to be a viable alternative.


Whenever there is a perception of opportunity, Companies will appear out of nowhere, professing to have "solved" the challenge of meeting that opportunity. This industry operates far more on rumour, innuendo, speculation and misinformation than any I have come across in my half century plus on this planet. the vast majority is predicated on the perpetuation of myth, that is further mystified through the tactics of publishing "snippets" of information, and withholding anything of substance. I have finally learned the reasons why. There simply is NO Substance behind the claims. It is all an effort to create an "appearance". Companies hide behind a cloak of Secrecy, and wrap up what their doing with NDA's and other protective mechanisms. Now - this is not a bad thing, as intellectual Property needs to be protected, however in most cases, it is a veil, that hides little more than "the man behind the curtain" in the Wizard of OZ. They want to know EVERYTHING about YOU - before they will release even basic information about them. I believe that this is much to their detriment, as it only serves to "turn off" bona fide Clients.


All business is done in the "back room". That is to say, once a potential client identifies a potential supplier, the FIRST thing they do, is to start talking to everyone and anyone they can, to learn about the Supplier. The conversations inevitably start with "Have you heard of . . . ?"; "Do you know about? . . " "What do you think of? . . " etc. Decisions are made, based on information from sources, that are about as valid, as the gossip amongst schoolgirls. I know that our Company - Sea2Sky Energy UK, has been tarred with the brush of our American namesake - Sea2Sky Corporation. While it is true that, in the beginning, we were aligned - the relationship quickly ended, and much to the chagrin of my partners, I decided to keep the name. History has shown that we are still here, and that they have disappeared into oblivion. (Although - they have "reinvented" themselves in the form of ECO-tech Energy Corporation.) It would seem that somehow - I have become a "sounding board" for people to draw information. Perhaps i is my misguided belief that cooperation is a better strategy than competition; or the fact that I am so vocal, that has caused this? I'm not really sure.


Unless there is a quid pro quo, you are highly unlikely to get "the straight goods" from any developer. Business relationships in a new industry, is like the secret of success for a marriage. It's a matter of give, and take. Looking through the archives of my email, I realised that there were over 10,000 messages in the past 3 years. Only a handful of those ultimately provided anything of value, either to our Company, or the industry at large. The vast majority were fishing expeditions. Full of tempting promises, lots of dangled carrots, but always JUST out of reach.Once they have gotten everything they can from you, they move on - never to be seen or heard from again. Value is a funny thing. Most of these people add no value, and are simply looking for someone to provide not only their education - but also to pay the tuition.


Any time, any one makes headway in an Industry, there are always those who sit back and watch, and at just the right moment - jump in to "help". They always have a strategy to make things better, faster, less expensive or more efficient. If you ONLY hire them - then they will solve ALL of your problems (for a small fee, of course!). These people seek to be the Middle Men, Intermediaries, Traders, Brokers, or other "must haves". In reality - they are doing little more than looking for a free ride on your wave. They have grand ideas on how they can Licence, Market, Franchise or otherwise promote all of your years of hard work, IF you'll only sign on with them. They promise a land flowing with milk and honey. Unfortunately - that land hasn't existed for many thousands of years, and nowadays - you need to succeed by the sheer efforts you make.


Ahhh yes . . .the "fund-raiser". Now these folks come in many colours. At the very basic level - they send you an unsolicited email, telling you that they have "reviewed" your technology, and they have a whole LIST of Angel Investors; Venture Capitalists, and High net Worth individuals, just LOOKING for what YOU have to offer. ALL you need to do, is send them a bunch of money - to teach you HOW to "present" to these people, and you're away to the races. I mean, after all, YOU can't be a brilliant Scientist, Inventor, Engineer AND businessman, all at the same time. So - they will be happy to coach you - AND - will present you to their ready, willing and able panel of people, who have MILLIONS to spend on you.

The second kind, offer funding with "no money down, no credit history, no pre-requisites, and no equity given up. All they want - is a few thousand in "Due Diligence" fees, and the "taps" with money will open. I actually received a presentation with those words - and they likened fund-raising to having a bath. As soon as you signed on to their program - you'd be luxuriating in more money than you know what to do with. What a crock!

So, there you have it. Lessons learned from the past 3 years of my life in this field. Where are we now?

Well. For the most part, the Industry hasn't progressed much beyond the point it was 3 years ago. Certainly the knowledge base is much broader, and there has been some development at the Commercial Scale, but all in all, we are still in the very early stages.

Everyone was looking for the elusive "Eureka" moment. This is a false idol, as that moment will never come to pass. What will come to pass, is small achievements, by many people, aggregating together to create the whole. During this journey, we have found a lot of kindred spirits, and we walk together now through the fog. Each person is another set of ears and eyes; and another mind. It is only through these collaborations that we believe we will succeed. Oddly enough, it is a strange brew of Academics; Intellectuals, Engineers, Scientists, Technicians, and a host of others.

Without them, I am nothing, so I thought I would take a bit of time to give credit, where credit is due.

George - the man without whom, I would have never been inspired to start this journey. You have been my inspiration, and the foundation of my belief in all of this.

John - a better, more patient business partner I could not ask for. You have suffered my hair-brained ideas, and always stood squarely beside me. Your insights and encouragement are the fuel of my engine.

Ira - my longest and best friend. We have certainly had our times, but we have managed through the good, the bad, and the ugly. One day, some day, we will reach the goal that we both have dedicated so much of our lives to.

Johan - we are a very odd match indeed. The accidental connection that brought us together,  has proven to be a very strong bond. We have struggled through this at every step, and I have always tried my best to live up to the expectations. Ours is truly a quid pro quo relationship, and I am grateful for your patience and understanding, as we find out way to the destination. Your honour and integrity are a an inspiration and aspiration to me.

Edward - My mentor, and often times, my reality therapist. I once learned that to be a success, you need to surround yourself with successful people. I don't know why you have tolerated me for all these years now, but your dedication and devotion has been a driving force. One that keeps me going, when I felt like giving up. Thank you for showing me the brass ring.

Ben - For 2 years now we have walked this journey. You're the only person I know at such an intimate level, that I have never actually spoken to.(Are you EVER going to send me your phone number?). You bring to me - the macro view. All too often I get caught up in my world - and you show me the greater world around me.

Nikolaus - a man who has brought more technical insight to me than anyone else. I hope to be able to reward you 10-fold in the days to come.

Karen - My love, and my life. This business has seen the destruction of us as a family - and in the adversity - we have found strength. One day we will be together again.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

On the road of Experience . . .

Many years ago, a songwriter penned the following words:

On the road of experience, I'm trying to find my own way.
Sometimes I wish that I could fly away
When I think that I'm moving, suddently things stand still
I'm afraid 'cause I think they always will

We are all, as developers, on that "Road of experience". As much as I would love to say that some maturity exists in this nascent Industry; reality doesn't mirror desire.

Case in point . . . The recent Fire at Stramproy-Greens Steenwijk Torrefaction Plant.

In spite of highly experienced Design Engineers . . .
In spite of independent Third-Party assessment and Validation . . . .
In spite of all best efforts . . . .

The worst possible of all scenarios - AKA FIRE - reared it's ugly head.

Now the very last thing that any biomass manufacturer or consumer needs is to have their plant go up in smoke. (Just ask RWE at Tilbury) These types of events, while destructive, are also instructive. Lessons learned enhance the Database of understanding, and provide for the opportunity to prevent History from repeating itself.

Along this road, for which we have no map, there have been many twists and turns. Thankfully - we are merely part of the convoy - and not in the lead. During the course of the Journey - we have seen many dash out in front - at breakneck speeds; This of course, left the rest of the pack in their dust.

However . . . a short time later - they were found on the side of the road, either broken down or worse (upside down in a ditch - in a ball of flames).

There are many old adages that apply - the one I like best is "Slow . . . and steady . . wins the race. Development of any new technology is always a difficult choice of being first to market - or just getting to market. Rapid development comes with it several inherent dangers:

  1. Lack of thorough investigation - with the resultant disappointment
  2. Premature launch - and the consequence of ill preparedness
  3. Industry suspicion - driven by the "Eureka" complex
The consequence of the above can be anything from setbacks to catastrophic failure.

We have watched as many Companies have apparently jumped to the front of the queue, well ahead of us. I have lost count now of the number of "ready to go" systems that are being marketed. The first question that comes to my mind is - "How on Earth did they do that? Seemingly appearing out of the ether - and launching on to the scene with a flurry and a flash. Alas . . . none of them, so far, have passed any measure of due-diligence on the part of a ready and waiting customer base.

Now if you have read my previous blogs, you will know that there are a few things you need to do, to prove out the functionality of a torrefaction Reactor System. As reality is Always reality - there are no ways to circumvent these. Try as I might - I am yet to find any evidence of a 1,000 tonne plus test burn of torrefied fuel, at a Power Station. (Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this?) Certainly - there have been many, MANY small burns (<1 tonne); and that is a natural first step. The real "acid test" is proof of product through use. This takes a dirty big pile of fuel, in a dirty big burner, of a dirty big power station.

Investors are a funny bunch. The moment you have a catastrophic failure at one site - it overshadows the entire industry with a black cloud, and creates an even more difficult situation for the rest of us. ("when I think I'm moving, suddenly time stands still"). As one would assume (perfectly naturally) the investors get nervous - and it halts, for a while, the interest; until someone addresses the problem - and comes up with a way to mitigate or eliminate it. After all, profits are derived from operations - and when your facility is burnt to the ground - it isn't making any money - which tends to upset even the most patient funder. (Not to mention - the Insurance Industry)

Recent events have only served to highlight the over-riding question "How do we know - what we DON'T know?" One of the joys of development - is travelling around that next turn - and seeing what's there. Let's hope it isn't a brick wall!

"Sometimes I wish that I could fly away . . . . . . . "


P.S. - I tried to put a small video of the explosivity testing we are doing. Unfortunately - it appears that I haven't got the necessary skills to do so. If anyone would like to see the fire and brimstone that is the consequence of mixing Bio-Coal powder and a spark - let me know and I will email it to you. In the meantime - The photo above is a 1m3 ISO Explosion vessel.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Present and future price of torrefied fuel

One of the questions I get asked regularly is "How much does Bio-Coal (sic) cost per tonne"?

That's a whole lot like asking how long a string is . . . or "are we there yet?" (By now - you've figured out that I have children I have taken on Long Road Trips ;-)

My usual answer is . . . . $156.02 - No, Wait - $197.53 . . . HOLD ON - ummmm - $276.27 . . . NOPE - it's $432.91

"Which one is correct?" is the usual next question.

The answer is . . . ALL of them. You see - it depends on where you are . . . Where your Customer is . . . How much volume . . . For how long . . . etc. etc.

I suppose that the FIRST thing one has to realise - is that Bio-Coal will NEVER be sold by the tonne. This would be suicidal to the purchaser (as the energy value varies so widely) and unfair to the producer - who makes a higher energy product than the competition.

Now don't get me wrong, at this stage - it is well and truly a "sellers market". After all - If you took the sum total of all of the torrefied Biomass that has ever been produced in the world, it wouldn't make a very impressive pile of anything.

The industry, to date, has been driven by the desire of end users (Utilities and the like) to get their hands on ANY volume of this product.

It's been an interesting development path. Not too long ago . . . Utilities took a "wait and see" attitude. They were undoubtedly inundated with "offers" of torrefied fuel, from a multitude of Developers. Promises were more plentiful than bugs on a bumper. Unfortunately - performance didn't follow promise.

Other than a few micro-test burns, NO ONE has actually shown that Bio-Coal does what it says on the tin. The reason is very simple - there hasn't been enough of it made yet. That however - is changing rapidly.

I don't think a week goes buy, that I don;t get yet another request from a broker, trader, intermediary or other "middle man", asking for volumes of Bio-Coal. The carrot of huge orders is dangled in front of me, once the product is validated. Hmmmmmm . . . . I wonder where that notion came from?

The fact of the matter is - there are a few Utilities that have taken the step of placing orders for trial volumes with manufacturers (we are one of them) and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Do we believe that there is a big pot of gold at the end of this rainbow? ABSOLUTELY! It is not however - just a simple matter of "here you go - give this a try" - as power stations tend to be very careful about what they feed their burners.

Of course - producing these volumes at "pilot plant" scale makes them quite expensive. yet again - we find ourselves in a "catch 22". We have to be able to produce Commercial Volumes, without having a commercial Reactor. Demo reactors are nice (albeit - expensive at about $1 Million each) and they take a larger staff to run than a full-blown commercial system would. So - the cost of the product ends up somewhere in the stratosphere. However - it is something that has to be done to get to the next level. The secret - is finding a partner (with deep pockets and long arms) that will stump up this cost - in order to get preferential access to the first commercial production.

We see this going on all around us. More, and more, technology developers are getting into bed with End-Users, and locking up varying amounts of future volumes. What is now happening - is that the opportunity to join this "brotherhood" is slowly, but surely closing.

So - any of you that are thinking about jumping in at the last minute (like a sniper on Ebay) are going to be sorely disappointed. I have always likened this to a flock of punters at the betting window - who want to place their bet, JUST before the horse-race is over. Unfortunately for them - the window is rapidly closing - and the opportunity will be lost.

We have recently received our first commission - to design and implement a 120 Kilotonne Bio-Coal Facility. This is the first, of 4 that will be built to provide feedstock for a new Power Station here in the UK. It's all very exciting. As far as I know - this will be the largest project of its kind in the EU to date - and will likely be the "flagship" of Bio-Coal production.

It might only be enough to power a 50 MWe Station - but that's more than big enough to launch the technology. Wish us luck - as it is an ambitious, challenging and somewhat terrifying (or is that Torrefying?) prospect.

The price? $40.00 a tonne for the Torrefaction Processing.

Now . . . you know.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Just when you thought you had it all figured out

My father once said to me "the older I get - the smarter I was". For a very long time - I had no idea what on EARTH he was talking about. (I lost him at an early age - some 37 years ago - and wasn't old enough to appreciate his wisdom)

Now that I AM my Father - in many respects - I have come to learn just how bright he was.

Take for example - Torrefaction. (After all - this IS what this blog is supposed to be about.)

At first - I believed it was all about Process. WRONG. While the technology is certainly the starting point, and developing an efficient, cost-effective, commercially viable solution was a lofty ambition (and is now a reality) - It was only the very beginning. Once we figured out how to make the stuff - we needed to learn what it was that we had figured out how to make. (Sounds a bit bass-ackwards - doesn't it?)

Of course - the next step was to determine not only what it was that we were supposed to be making - but how it could behave. So - Combustion testing; Alkaloid deposition trials, Storage and leachate trials; explosivity; the list goes on and on and on.

JUST when we thought that we actually KNEW something about this wonder product - Along comes the ECHA. (European Chemicals Agency). NOW - it seems that these guys have a right to know EVERYTHING about all the stuff that you want to move around in Europe. They have a program called REACH (and it is rather far REACHing in it's effect) that purports to control the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. Holy Cow - that's a mouthful. Anyway - these guys have the obligation to make sure that all of the stuff moving around the EU, in quantities of 1,000 tonnes per year or more, is actually safe.

The FIRST think I noticed on their website was the "ENFORCEMENT REGIME". So - I said to myself . . . . this MUST be rather important -if the predominant information presented is not the mechanism for compliance - but rather how you get beat up if you DON'T comply - and I had better look at compliance as pathway.

As it happens - It's really not that difficult a process (Compared to launching a Manned Moon Landing) and shouldn't take more than 6 to 12 months - and cost more than a few hundred thousand pounds sterling. You know - it's funny - but they just won't "take my word for it" when I tell them that Bio-Coal is Okidoki stuff. They ACTUALLY want to see data, and evidence, and tests, and independent verification, and peer review and, and, and.

At the end of it all - what do we end up with? A "registration" number. WOW - now I've always wanted one of those - in fact - from the time I was a child - I decided that spending a few years wages to get a registration number was one of my goals. (NOT)

However - regulations being what they are - we will now start again, and fill out unlimited forms; provide unlimited Data; Substantiation; Empirical Evidence and a big bag of Money to get what we need to sell our product.

Hence - just when we THOUGHT we knew something - it turns out that we really don't. We are however - MILES ahead of anyone else in this industry (with the exception of our partners and collaborators and supporters).

Here are some of the areas that we are now exploring:

Exposure limits:


Sensitizing capability:


Reproductive toxicity:



By the way - if there is anyone out there that would like to avail themselves of our research and the progress we have made - get in touch with me. We are firm believers in Collaboration rather than Competition. The Ultimate goal is to get this to Market - and we are happy to work with ANYONE who is a bona-fide developer of this product.

On a final note - a few weeks ago - I received a call from a very upset man - who was one of the principles of Zilkha Biomass. He was quite upset at the comment I made in a previous blog - where he indicated that he didn't think it was right for me to compare his fuel to Chicken S**t. Well, I reviewed the blog, and in fact - I DID NOT say that Zilkha Black pellets were chicken s**t at all. What I said was - that they were no more torrefied pellets - than Chicken SOUP was Chicken S**T"

He reiterated to me that NO WHERE, at NO TIME, did they EVER say that their pellets were torrefied. That is blatantly obvious.

Now - in discussion with him - he said that he was going to be very nice - and ASK me to print a retraction. IF I refused to do so - then the next people I would hear from were his Lawyers. (Apparently - in his view - I had Slandered them and Libelled them and was an all around not-nice person)

Yet again - I offered to tell the WHOLE story of their product - and requested samples in order to undertake a peer review. The Risk of this, of course, was that as a scientist - it would be a very factual and un-compromised analysis - and that isn't something that is always particularly flattering.

For the record:

Zilkha Black pellets are in NO WAY, SHAPE or FORM Torrefied fuel, and have never been promoted as such.