Thursday, 16 December 2010

How to Secure a Major Supply Contract for Torrefied Fuel Pellets

It is generally accepted that, torrefied pellets are the "holy grail" of renewable fuel. After all - if they can live up to their promise - then they represent the best current solution for replacing coal at Utility scale. Of course - this outline already presumes that you have identified a source of raw materials, and have some idea of the size and scope of Manufacturing facility you want to establish.

And, by the way, DON'T tell anyone what you're doing! Your phone will NOT stop ringing, and you'll be constantly pestered by people who want to jump on your bandwagon. (trust me on this one ;-)

The question is - How do you secure a Major Supply Contract?

Below is an outline of the path to market . . . . . . . . . . . . .

STEP 1) Identify your target. As there are many Utilities worldwide - you need to look at who the most likely candidate is. In the UK, there are several major and Minor players - Drax; Scottish & Southern; RWE n-Power; E-On, etc. Any one of these is more than capable of purchasing a larger volume than ANY supplier could produce - so pick one - and go to step 2.

STEP 2) Get through the door of your chosen Client. This can often times be as simple as a bit of research on the internet, to find out who looks after fuel supply. When you find them - send an email - and make them an offer.

Now - the easy part is over. Once you have an expression of interest (which is as easy as falling off a wet log) you need to validate your fuel.

STEP 3) Analyse your feedstock. Starting with a small sample of your chosen feedstock, you need to make sure that it has the "right stuff" to become a utility fuel. Now, woody biomass (dead trees and the like) is a pretty good bet. Grasses . . . . (like miscanthus, reed canary, arundo, bamboo, etc.) are a little more problematic. Agricultural residues (PKS, olive cake, Shea meal, etc.) are somewhere in-between. The raw material needs to have a specific set of physical and chemical properties, that allow it to be co-fired with coal. If there's too much of some things - or not enough of others - then it just won't work. This shouldn't cost more than £1,000.00 to £2,000.00 for a full analysis.

STEP 4) Chose a torrefaction technology to process the feedstock. You have a choice of over 50 technologies these days - so select the one that is most suitable for integration with your manufacturing process and feedstock characteristics. And don't buy the cheapest torrefaction technology available. (You'll only get what you pay for)

STEP 5) Run a trial batch of your chosen feedstock through your chosen technology. Any torrefaction technology provider should be able to offer you this service on their equipment. Although - you will have to pay for it. The "going rate" is about £5,000.00 for a day's operation; and at the end of it - you will have a few hundred kilos of torrefied product. (Don't worry about pelletising at this point - just work with the material as it comes out of the reactor)

Step 6) Analyse the characteristics of the torrefied product. The most important ones are;

a) Grindability
b) Explosivity of dust
c) Hydrophobicity
e) K and Cl content
f) Particle shape after grinding

Once you have determined that your torrefied feedstock meets your customer's requirements for the above - (which you should budget about £3,500.00 to validate) then you can move on with the next step. If it doesn't make the grade - go back to step 4, and find another technology; hopefully - this time - one that will produce a better result.

OK - we're about 1/2 way there . . . . . . . .

STEP 7) You now need to produce about 100 tonnes of material, but this time, you need to find someone to turn it into Pellets, Pucks, Briquettes, cubes, etc. There are many Companies that manufacture pelletising and briquetting equipment worldwide - so you just need to "sell" them on the idea that if their machinery works - there could be a big order for equipment at the end of it all for them. (It might help if you bought them a coffee - or even lunch - to sway their decision in your favour!)

The cost of densification trials should be NO MORE than £5,000.00 to £10,000.00. And MAKE SURE that you get a written guarantee that this will be CREDITED towards the purchase of a few million worth of equipment when you set up your manufacturing facility.

STEP 7) Now - you need to prove the handling characteristics for the fuel. This involves a simple process of Durability testing (bash the little buggers around for a while to see how "tough" they are) If the pellets, briquettes, etc. can't cut it - and they break down into a pile of powder - go and find yourself another Equipment Company that can ACTUALLY make a pellet that will hold together in real life situations.

While you're putting the fuel through it's durability paces, you might as well test it for other handling characteristics. Flow-ability; bridging; and resistance to abrasion are 3 other standards that they will have to meet. After all - in a coal yard, where they will spend a good part of their life, there are dirty-big machines that run over them, and scoop them up, and generally handle them with anything but kit gloves. Again - if they can't stand the heat (and break down into a pile of mush) then they better stay out of the Power Station.

This type of testing can be done quite cheaply - Say . . .£1,000.00

STEP 8) Now comes the hard part. Combustion testing. You need to take your 100 tonnes of tough little fuel pellets, grind them to a powder again (yes - I know, seems a little redundant - but that's the way pulverised fuel injection boilers work) and inject them past the gates of hell into a boiler. For those of you who have never seen a boiler injection nozzle - there's one above. (Nasty looking bit of kit - isn't it?)

Now, you say that you are a little short on Pulverised Fuel Combustion Testing Facilities? Not to worry - there's a number of them around the world that will be happy to do a trial run for you. It's highly likely that your chosen Utility will know of one somewhere in your area. The only downside to this, is the cost. Be prepared to pay between £80,000.00 and £100,000.00 PER FUEL to test it.

Now - this is the point that you sit back and wait; hope and pray - that you have made a fuel with the "Right Stuff". IF it doesn't have the correct Chemistry, and tends to corrode boiler tubes - then this is not a good thing. If it has an ash melting temperature that's too low - you're in trouble. Even if it's just a tiny bit too explosive (when in the feed tubes and conveyors - it won't pass muster - and you'll have to go back to STEP 5 again and sort it out. (You did get a "fitness for purpose" guarantee from your technology provider? Didn't you? After all - what good is it if it doesn't do what it says on the box?

We're almost there . . . . . .

STEP 9) Now that you have a complete set of test results from your trials, you only need to pass one more hurdle. So - go and make a thousand tonnes or so of your fuel, for testing in "real world" situations. To finish the validation process, you will need to partner up with your Utility Customer, and run the fuel, in various concentrations, through their burner units. It shouldn't be too difficult to get them to shut down their generating stations for a while, so that you can test the lovely clean-burning, planet friendly fuels. Start with a low ratio co-fire (say . . . 20%) then work your way up slowly to 100%. Once you've proven things for an hour or so - it's time to take the bull by the horns - and do a long-term burn. A reasonable size unit will consume about 1,000 tonnes per day - so you should have enough fuel to run for about 2 days. By the way - the cost of these trials will be in the region of £250,000.00 to £300,000.00. (You didn't think a Utility was going to shut down operations and let you play with their big-boy's toys for free, did you?)

At the end of the trial, you sit back, relax, and have a cup of coffee, while the engineers, scientists, analysts, etc. validate and verify the data. They will look at things like ash composition; performance; emissions, etc. (Stuff that YOU shouldn't be bothered about - after all - you're just the fuel supplier)

STEP 10) Presuming that all things went well in step 9 (and after all . . .what could possibly go wrong?) you then sit down and give yourself a BIG pat on the back, because you have succeeded in doing what no one has done before you. NOW - it's time to sign on with that multi-billion pound sterling purchase order, and start planning how to spend all of your new found wealth.

And that, my friends . . is all there is to it.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

Torrefaction - True or False?

It never ceases to amaze me how much misinformation there is about Torrefied Biomass.
Below are a number of claims that have been published – and I thought it would be fun to look at a few of them – and test your knowledge;
1) By using torrefied biomass, utility companies avoid additional capital expenditure in existing power plants T? F?
2) It is carbon neutral, as all renewable biomass sequesters an equal amount of CO during growth as is released upon its burning T? F?
3) An increase of the heating value per weight unit (9,500 to 11,000 Btu/lb) T? F?
4) Achievement of a hydrophobic property, with a moisture content of less than 3% T? F?
5) Improved grinding, crushing, or pulverizing properties (40 on the Hardgrove Grindability Index, comparable to coal) T? F?
6) Increased uniformity and durability T? F?
7) Torrefaction involves the removal of volatiles, most acids and smoke-producing agents T? F?
8) Each ton of torrefied wood burned in the facility reduces their carbon output by up to 2.4 tons, earning them an estimated $72 in carbon credits. T? F?
9) Torrefied wood can be handled just like coal. T? F?
10) It does not take on water so it can be left uncovered like coal. T? F?
11) During the torrefaction process, as most volatiles are burned off, eliminating the concerns over slagging in the boiler. T? F?

In fact – 9 of them are false
So . . . how did you do?
1) This one is TRUE, but only to a point. Many people are promoting and pumping the value of torrefied Biomass because it “offsets” high CapEx costs associated with handling; grinding storing and burning whitewood pellets. In fact – this ONLY applies to pellets, as most other biomass feedstocks do NOT need special storage and handling systems. It is also TRUE however – that ALL power stations put little to no “value” on these “avoided” costs. They simply pay the Climate Change Levy – and don’t burn biomass.
2) FALSE – ABSOLUTELY FALSE! True carbon neutrality could ONLY be achieved if the CO2 footprint left on the entire supply chain was zero (and this is HIGHLY unlikely). Certainly – biomass absorbs CO2 during its lifetime, and emits it during combustion – however – there are a lot of processes that embed energy into the harvesting; transport, manufacturing and handling of biomass. In the case of forest residues - It is also true that only 30% to 40% of the entire volume of feedstock is converted into fuel. The other 60% to 70% is effectively sequestered carbon (in the form of furniture, building materials, etc.) that could ultimately be converted into fuel. So – it is the FOREST that is carbon neutral – NOT the feedstock.

IF the entire supply chain were carbon neutral, EVERY piece of field equipment, truck and train would need to run on Bio-Diesel; delivered in trucks that run on bio-diesel; derived from a plant that is solar powered. The manufacturing facility would need to be powered by geothermal energy (heat) and solar PV powered (electric); the ships would need to be Gas turbine powered, from Syn-gas, derived from torrefied pellets. Having said that – let’s look at the RELATIVE Carbon neutrality to coal. On average, a ton of coal takes approximately 25 Gj of energy to mine, extract, process and transport. For that – you get 24-26 Gj of Derived energy – after imparting even further energy into handling, conveying, grinding and injecting. Torrefied Biomass, on the other hand, will have an embedded energy of about 2 Gj per tonne.

3) This one is also TRUE – kilo for kilo – torrefied biomass has a higher heating value than its non torrefied counterpart. This however – is predominantly a function of the removal of moisture from the feedstock.

4) FALSE – Most promoters extol the “hydrophobic” properties of torrefied wood. While it is true that it does resist water uptake, it is FAR from being hydrophobic. In fact – some of the “torrefied wood” we have tested actually absorbed MORE water than its untreated counterpart (Bamboo – for example). So – like most generalities – this one doesn’t hold true.

5) FALSE – Again, you need to define “improved”. Certainly – torrefied biomass is more friable – but it comes with a price. That price is explosivity of the dust (when it is kept dry) and the development of “sludge” when it is ground wet. Anyone who has undertaken any testing of torrefied material in a ball-grinder when the material was stored outside will tell you that this is a significant hurdle to overcome.

6) FALSE – Uniformity, and I’m defining that by the term homogeneous, has nothing to do with the process of torrefaction – and everything to do with the feedstock. A wide variety of feedstocks will produce a wide variety of finished products. After all – the old expression “Garbage IN – Garbage OUT” applies. Durability is the antithesis of Friability – so it CAN’T be both. Like most things – this is an area of compromise – where you trade off the durability of the pellets for CV, or Grindability, or particle size and shape. Sweeping generalities like this are commonplace, and simply not true.

7) FALSE, ABSOLUTELY, UNEQUIVOCALY FALSE. I think that this myth was initiated and perpetuated by Ahava Amen from New Earth Renewable Energy. He had a Wonderful U-Tube video that showed him holding a “standard pellet below a smoke detector after lighting it. Guess what happened? Give up? The smoke detector went off! THEN – he held a lit piece of torrefied wood below the same smoke detector – and Surprise . . . Surprise. . Surprise! The smoke detector DIDN’T go off! His explanation was that ALL of the volatiles had been removed from the Torrefied wood – and therefore no smoke could be emitted. (What UTTER Nonsense!) The reality is – that torrefied wood, on average, is about 70% volatiles. At least – ever test we have done – and every credible study I have read indicated the same thing. SO – how did the smoke detector remain silent? Simple breath of air blowing across the top of the pellet – to keep it “glowing” (and provide more complete combustion), while blowing the invisible smoke from the detector’s surface. You heard it here first.

8) FALSE – burning 1 tonne of coal and 1 tonne of torrefied wood release about the same amount of CO2. Actually – the coal does emit more (simply because it has a higher Carbon Content to begin with) but neither of them emits 2.4 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of fuel burned.
Coal with a heating value of 6.67 kWh per kilogram as quoted above has a carbon content of roughly 80%, which is where 1 mol equals to NA (Avogadro Number) atoms.
Carbon combines with oxygen in the atmosphere during combustion, producing carbon dioxide, with an atomic weight of (12 + 16 × 2 = 44 kg/kmol). The CO2released to air for each kilogram of incinerated coal is therefore 2.93 kg

9) FALSE – Torrefied wood has many specific handling requirements that make it significantly different from coal. Firstly – it contains much lower moisture than most coals, and produces a much more hazardous dust, both in terms of explosivity and health & safety. (Coal dust is certainly bad enough – but look up an MSDS on most biomass dusts and you will find that they are MUCH worse.) Many of the “torrefied” biomass products offered on the market today with high CV’s, are virtually charcoal – and if you research the MSDS and COSSH on charcoal dust – you will find that most jurisdictions classify it as “explosive” and “hazardous”. These characteristics necessitate very special handling protocols.

10) FALSE (see #4 above)

11) FALSE – COMPLETELY, UTTERLY, TOTALLY AND ABSOLUTELY FALSE!!!! Torrefaction has NOTHING to do with slagging characteristics of boilers. This is ALWAYS a function of the chemistry of the fuel; and is determined by the presence or absence of K and Cl mostly. It is the ASH MELTING temperature that is the critical determination. Certainly – torrefaction DOES remove a lot of the Acids from the raw feedstock, thereby improving its utility and reducing the tendency to corrode boiler pipes, but that’s about as far as it goes.

The lesson learned here is that, in spite of an ENORMOUS amount of factual Data available; hundreds of scientific papers; and untold thousands of tests – the Fallacies about torrefied biomass still run rampant.
Perhaps is it because people want to “appear” to know what they are talking about?
Perhaps it is a “belief”, based on “wishful thinking”?
Whatever the reason – now you know . . . the rest of the story. . .

Friday, 3 December 2010

All's Quiet on the western front

Where have all the Torrefaction Developers gone?

It seemed for a while there, that a week didn't go by, that someone else was entering the torrefaction arena. After all - in the short span of a couple of years, no less than 53 Companies and Organisations were throwing their hats into the ring. NOW - it would appear that we have reached "saturation" point.

One could reasonably assume that this meant there was a clear winner - a Company that had "cracked the code" - and that was successful in commercialising the Technology. Alas - such is not the case.

Progress continues, slowly but surely, towards the ultimate goal. What is happening, is a number of Governmental organisations worldwide are "waking up" to the potential of torrefaction, and undertaking "studies" with respect to its viability.

For example - the Government in British Columbia is throwing $150,000.00 at a study, and will then consider whether there is any merit to throwing even larger amounts of money at a pilot project - and ultimately a Commercial Demonstration Project. Somehow, from where I sit, this this seems a lot like reinventing the wheel. After all - there was much fanfare a few months ago about a large Torrefaction Facility being built in Terrace, BC. The Ground breaking ceremony was attended by local, regional and Provincial Politicians; including the Minister of Forests I understand; so I have to ask myself "Didn't he tell the Ministry department looking at considering the viability of Torrefaction about this project?"

After all - it seems somewhat of a foregone conclusion. However - far be it from me to even attempt to begin to understand the mysterious ways of politics and politicians.

As the cold weather sets in, and my energy bills escalate (Followed closely by the annual escalation in Fuel costs) I think about the time when I will have a nice pellet boiler to warm the cockles of my house. Funny - but the annual increase in energy costs is as predictable as the annual Postal Strike - just before Christmas. I wonder if it's a revolt on the part of the Postal workers to NOT deliver the Utility Bills until AFTER Christmas????? Somehow - I think not.

The Reactor development is coming along nicely. We have added a pair of eminent scientists to our Staff, and are busy working away on CFD and devolitilization regimes and the like. We do now have one test reactor operational - and this is specifically focussed on Fines (sawdust) and small particles. A second test reactor, which will handle wood chips and ground wood is on schedule for March commissioning. Slowly - but surely - we continue on our quest.

FINALLY, after 20 months, my report entitled "A Complete and Comprehensive Overview of Torrefaction Technologies" is ready for the publisher. It should be available on the market by December 7th. While not exactly bedtime reading, it does include virtually everything you always wanted to know about Torrefaction - but were afraid to ask.

In the end - it may not sell one copy. On the other hand - it may sell many. The cost of the report is about 2 weeks wages for a researcher in a Large Company - and represents excellent value, if you want to know the "who's who" and " what's what" of torrefaction.

Wish me luck.


Friday, 20 August 2010

NER 300 - EU Recognises Torrefaction Technology

This is a marvellous announcement, and the FIRST time we have seen recognition of Torrefaction technology by a Major National Governing body; (No offence to Taiwan's EPA Minister Stephen Shu-Hung Shen - who said that "using low-temperature torrefaction to convert bio-fuel to eco-coal for co-generation is the most efficient way of harnessing biomass energy"); and had that recognition backed up by the potential for on-going financial support.

To quote the decision paper; one of the Appendix I Renewable Categories specifically identifies the conversion of "Lignocellulose to intermediate solid, liquid or slurry bioenergy carriers via torrefaction with capacity 40 kt/yr (kilo tonnes per year) of the final product". What more needs to be said?

There is however, one tiny little issue with this. (There's ALWAYS a fly in the ointment, isn't there?)

The application process is limited to a small number of projects per MS (Member State). Essentially - instead of distributing the funding on some formula (population - for example) it is based on the NUMBER of projects. Each MS is guaranteed ONE - but will be able to apply for 3.

hmmmmm . . . . .SO - given the choice of putting forward a £3 Million project, or a £30 Million project, which do you think the Government will do? The answer - came swiftly from the DECC in the Consultation paper on the NER 300. To no ones surprise - they have effectively already made up their mind to submit WAVE and TIDAL power projects, as their "technology of choice".

In this Consultation Document (Although - I am unaware of anyone who was "consulted" on the matter) they state:

"Our approach to preparing the UK shortlist (pre-selection) for the NER300 will be to seek to maximise the UK’s overall financial return and ensure that return contributes to our domestic priorities. Among the 34 subcategories of innovative Renewable Demonstration projects eligible for support, our preference for the projects we would like to consider short-listing for NER support are those projects falling within the ocean category. These are wave energy devices with nominal capacity 5MW, marine/tidal currents energy devices with nominal capacity 5MW and ocean thermal energy conversion with nominal capacity 10MW."

Well - there you have it! So - it looks like Torrefaction doesn't have the proverbial snowball's chance in h*ll of being put forward by the DECC to the EU under this funding mechanism.

What to do . . . .what to do . . . ?

Well - one would suppose that the other developers of torrefaction in the EU are rubbing their hands together in glee. After all - one of the horses in the race is dead long before the race begins, and that means that there is one less Country (read - competing technology) to worry about. Who knows - maybe France or Spain or Germany will also write-off torrefaction before it even gets a chance?

It does however, appear that if there are no more than 1 or 2 projects submitted in any single technology category - that the EU will simply "strike off" the technology for "lack of interest".

Oh well - a brief moment of hope is shattered by a long period of disappointment. Nonetheless - we still have our reactor to complete.

Speaking of which - I thought you might like to see what it will look like when finished. There's a picture of a 900 tonne per year reactor at the top of this Blog Page. (I bet you were wondering what the heck that was, weren't you?

This unit is manufactured in France, and is specifically designed to produce bio-coal at a "community" (not Utility) scale. If all things go well - we will have one of these here in the next few months for trials and research. I can hardly wait.

You have to admit - it IS a pretty cool looking piece of kit - all bright and shiny stainless steel.

For now - we continue to trudge on with the day to day chores.

Damn the torpedoes - full steam ahead

Thursday, 22 July 2010

X-Ray and SEM Pictures of Torrefied Biomass

Today was a very exciting day down at the lab. I felt a little bit like Superman; as we fired up our XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) analyser.

Basically - this tool allows us to look at the Atomic Make-up of the product.

We ran 4 sets of tests today:

1) Whitewood pellets (both woody and Olive Cake)

2) Torrefied Pellets (From various suppliers)

3) Biomass Feedstocks (Pine, Fir, Cedar, etc.)

4) Coal (from Southeast Asia and the UK)

NOW - we have some baseline data, that takes us to the molecular level, and creates a "signature" for each product. Funny - but there was a real feeling of power in doing this. After all - very few people on this planet can bombard a sample of something with radiation, and tell what it is made of.

Some amazing discoveries:

1) Coal, isn't always coal. That is to say - there is a great variation between the samples we analysed.

2) Olive Cake and Shea have huge concentrations of Potassium and Chlorine (relative to woody Biomass)

3) Geiger counters are a handy thing to have when hanging around radiation sources.

4) Torrefied Wood is not much different from coal.

After we finished playing with the XRF, we went next door to fire up the SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope). Now this isn't EXACTLY X-Ray vision, but it is possible to magnify something 40,000 times to see what it's made of. (Basically - a 6 mm diameter pellet has the apparent width of 240 metres (the length of 2 football fields). At this level of magnification, there's PLENTY to see! For instance - we looked at the cellular structure of the torrefied wood. Each little macro-fibril was visible, neatly lined up into bundles. Even the lignin (which appeared as both a solid and a crystal) showed up as a "glue" that was holding the various fibres together. Impurities in the pellet (a microscopic bit of sand, for example) looked like huge boulders on a moonscape. It truly was a foreign landscape, full of high ridges and deep valleys that we patrolled around.

4:00 came all too soon, and I hated to leave this new wonderland I had found.

Now, don't get me wrong - this is all very serious science here. From a business perspective, one aspect of fuel production is the absolute certainty that each batch is the same as the last, and the next. Now that we have our database of "signatures" (Kind of like DNA for biomass) we are instantly able to verify whether the fuel has "the right stuff" or not.

In the end - this brings us closer and closer to a definitive description of torrefied wood.

Tomorrow - we start looking at grindability characteristics, and particle size and shape. We have a ball grinder that is a good analogous model of a full-scale one (that they use in Power Stations). This will allow us to see exactly how the Torrefied wood behaves when subjected to the thumping and grinding of steel balls. (I know - not quite as exciting as watching cars rust - but - it's all in the name of science!)

If anyone has anything they would like us to analyse at an atomic or micro-graphic level - please contact me and we can discuss it.


Friday, 16 July 2010

The "Crystal Ball" View of Torrefaction

The days of whitewood pellets, as a Commercial / Industrial product are rapidly coming to an end.

Once Torrefaction Technology has been Commercialised and rolled-out, there are NO Power Stations that will want to purchase non-torrefied product. The reasons for this are very simple;

1) Torrefied Pellets Store better than Whitewood
2) Torrefied Pellets Burn better than Whitewood
3)Torrefied Pellets Ship more econmically than whitewood
4) Torrefied Pellets Grind better than Whitewood
5) Torrefied pellets emit much Lower Emissions than Whitewood
6) Torrefied Pellets cost the same (per unit of energy) as whitewood.

Many Utilities are deferring their plans to modify Power Stations to accommodate Whitewood Pellets, in anticipateion of the arrival of Torrefied Pellets.

On the Residential, Commercial and Light Industrial front, one of the major drivers is air quality. As Torrefied Pellets already have many voloatiles (smoke producing) removed, their emissions are lower, and the consequence is much better air quality. Local Councils, Regional Districts and other Authorities are offered this "air-friendly" solution, it will be widly implemented as a planning consent condition.

This, of course, raises several issues:

1) What do the existing, small (4,000 to 6,000 tonne per year) Whitewood Pellet manufacturers do? It isn't sensible to retrofit Torrefaction at that scale, and there would need to be a cooperative or Group formed to meet the minimum economic volumes.
2) What will happen to the price of Whitewood Pellets? As a less desirable product, the price of Whitewood Pellets (as a consequence of supply and demand) will rapidly drop. This will result in an implosion of that industry for those who do not embrace and adopt the new technology. Neither of my children (age 11 and 13) have ANY Idea what a "record" is. The universal adoption of CD's virtuall overnight, created the extinction of vinyl.
3) Regulators, when now faced with a cleaner, greener option (that overcomes the technical limitations of Whitewood Pellets) can now insist on higher co-firing and utilisation levels. In addition, at Utility Scale, many of the existing or planned whitewood power Stations (wood chips, PKS, etc.) will no longer be either economically sensible or Legislatively approvable. This will be as a consequence of their feedstocks being converted, at source, into Torrefied Pellets, to facilitate the significant savings in Transport worldwide.

The WHOLE world changes, 30 seconds after the FIRST Torrefied wood comes out of the FIRST Commercial Torrefaction Reactor.

And we'll be there to see History in the making.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A Rose, by any other Name . . . . . .

It was William Shakespeare who wrote the immortal words: "What's in a name? that which we call a rose - By any other name would smell as sweet"

The point to his prose is, that it matters little what something is called - but rather what it is.

Torrefied Wood certainly fall into this category.

Even though it is effectively a brand new product, it already has several International "Brands" that people are placing on it - presumably in an attempt to create a unique identity for their own particular version. Lets see . . . . . I have heard it called the following:

1) Bio-Coal
2) BIO2
3) Eco-Coal
4) E-Coal
5) E-Char
6) Dura Burn
and my all-time favourite . . . .
8) ACTOF (Ablazing Clean Torrefied Organic Fuel)

Undoubtedly, I have missed a few here, but the point remains - there are may organisations that want to become synonymous with torrefied wood, and stake their claim as the "Brand". Knowing precious little about branding, marketing or other hype - I have the feeling that this product is unlikely to EVER become a household word like IBM, Rolex, Nike, Rolls-Royce or any other Iconic Brand name.

The reality is, that no matter how you encapsulate your product; how you "spin" your environmental credentials; or how you "identify" with your market - UNLESS the torrefied wood has "The Right Stuff" - it isn't going to sell.

I'm not sure that I understand the reasoning behind all of the effort, energy and money being spent on this exercise. After all, isn't torrefied wood about PERFORMANCE - not Perception? I guess the promoters assume that Utilities are really dumb and gullible.

Many Years ago, I was fascinated by a man named Ron Popeil. It seemed that a day didn't go by, that he hadn't come up with something "new and Improved" to sell us. He had a Company, appropriately named "RONCO" (Creative - isn't it?) Under a slick and mesmerising marketing campaign, he was able to tempt millions of people to part with their hard-earned cash for useful items such as the "Veg-O-Matic; Pocket Fisherman; Dial-O-Matic; Inside-The-Egg Scrambler; and - WHO can forget - the GLH (Great Looking Hair) Formula # 9 (this was essentially spray paint for your bald spot!)

I guess Abraham Lincoln was right. He said - "You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time"

But the greatest Showman of all time (and it was promoted as "The GREATEST Show on EARTH!) was P. T. Barnum. Fame and fortune were his, and he seemed to have a never-ending parade of the weird and wonderful. (all for the cost of a cup of coffee). HE got it right. Barnum is credited with saying - "There's a sucker born EVERY Minute." (he didn't actually say it - he was just credited with it.)

Needless to say - this torrefaction world is FULL of P. T. Barnum's, and I personally find it quite humorous to follow their antics. However - reality is ALWAYS reality, no matter how much someone would try to convince you otherwise.

I rather subscribe to the philosophy of a certain David Kirkaldy who was a pioneer in the materials testing world. His motto? "FACTS, not OPINIONS". Herein lies the true secret behind torrefied wood. The process is one that is complete; nothing extra to buy, no options. It is based on sound scientific principle, and the underlying facts - not on the trumped-up, fanciful opinions of those that would have you believe it were otherwise.

There are 3 simple rules:

1) Math is ALWAYS MATH
2) Physics is ALWAYS PHYSICS.


3) NO ONE can change rules #1 or #2.

Every day, I get emails asking me whether this particular technology is legitimate, or this product is real, etc. I find it hard to believe that otherwise intelligent, educated and intellectual people are so perplexed by this technology.

Answers to the above questions, and much, MUCH more is available in my upcoming publication "A complete and Comprehensive overview of Torrefaction Technologies". Details at

Perhaps some day; one day, it will all become very clear. When it does - we will be there, smack dab in the middle of it all.

Forewarned is Fore-armed.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Path to Commercialisation

As a new business, we started with an Idea.

The Idea needed to be developed into a Plan.

The Plan needed to be converted into a Value Proposition.

The Value Proposition needed to be converted into an Investment.

Not being a person of significant financial means, (read - high net-worth), it meant that survival of the Company would necessitate convincing a LOT of other people to buy into our idea. One thing is for sure - good ideas happen every, single day. The vast majority of them go undeveloped, because of one simple fact. the idea is only 10% of the entire package. I think it was Einstein who said "genius was 1% Inspiration - and 99% Perspiration.

Armed with this snippet of wisdom, we set out to start sweating. The FIRST objective was to find out whether the idea had any merit whatsoever. That is to say - could it be turned into a business? Very quickly, it was revealed that, not only could it be turned into a Business - but it was the start of what would be a revolution in the industry. So far - So good.

Explaining your brilliant idea to people, to get validation and feedback is one thing. Everybody I spoke to thought it was a "great idea" and encouraged me to develop it. This is where I quickly learned lesson #1:

The value of the advise is directly proportional to the effort that the giver is willing to put behind it. That is to say - talk is cheap. Over time, we assembled a team of people who not only talked the talk - but also walked the walk. Not in terms of financial investment (we were FAR too early for that) but in terms of a MUCH more valuable commodity - TIME. Being the beneficiary of years of experience that these "mentors" brought was a huge step forward. Over the past 18 months, countless hundreds of hours have been "donated to the cause", and have allows us to develop and grow the concept into a reality. As much as I would love to say that I knew it all, the reality of the situation rapidly reared its ugly head and brought me back down to earth. The first step - was finding a Customer. Not only one that would buy some product - but one that would commit to a Multi-Million pound purchase Agreement - over a long period of time.

Having secured that Order - it now made sense to go find some wood to actually convert into product to FILL the order. This was really easy to say - and just a tiny bit more difficult to do. After all, there were 4 minor barriers to this:

1) The Company was 6 weeks old, and had no track record; no past performance and no money.
2) Nowhere in the past has any Forest Company EVER signed a 10 to 20 year supply agreement, fixed-price, index-linked.
3) The supply had to come from a Certifiably Sustainable source - and could not impact on existing business, (Like wood chips to pulp mills) AND be backed by a "Blue Chip" Company.
4) There were LOTS of other people out there, looking for EXACTLY the same thing.

In spite of the above apparently insurmountable barriers, we secured the agreement. (It did take a LOT of smooth talking to do so - and 2 - 54 hour round trips on an A380)

Now that we had a Customer - and a wood supply - it was time to find a Technology. This meant - it was time to find some investment.

One of the critical factors that an investor looks at is the potential "disruptive" technologies, that would impact their investment. As there were several established torrefaction technologies in existence at the time, we had to set ourselves apart from them. The solution to this problem was blatantly obvious. Knowledge of the competition and analysis of their strengths and weaknesses provide the opportunity for improvement. Topell had done a very good job of bringing RWE into their fold. This gave them a head-start on everybody else. The initial investment has translated into a major Capitalisation of a commercial facility. (Even though - the technology had dubious credentials at this point.)

Looking at Wyssmont revealed that they had managed quite nicely to get Integro to buy into their dream of a torrefaction Reactor. After all, Wyssmont have been drying stuff for a very long time, and Torrefaction wasn't THAT hard after all - was it? After spending a couple of million on R & D, and trying to get the darn thing to work, it would appear that Integro are seeking alternative technologies. (For the record - I think the Wyssmont Turbo Dryer is a GREAT Machine, for drying stuff, it's simply not ever going to be an economical, functional Torrefaction reactor)

Such has been the case with most of the other developers. Their Disruptive Technology wasn't as disruptive as first thought. So - what to do?

We went back to basics. It started with an examination of the Science of the process to begin with. Courtesy of Bourgeois, Prins, Bergman et al, we were able to easily and quickly get to the heart of the matter. The basic Kinetics; Thermodynamics and Reaction Chemistry was right there - before our very eyes. Starting from this theoretical realm, we set out to define what a Torrefaction Reactor should look like - based on what it needs to do. (Pretty simple - isn't it?) Now - anybody with a computer can access this information and learn that torrefaction is a heating process. So - you need to heat up bits of wood. OK, next step. You then need to keep it at a certain temperature, for a certain period of time. (Not exactly rocket science) When you do this, the character of the wood changes. (Much Like my skin changes to dark brown when I go out in the sun.) The changes are for the good. It becomes more friable, less tenacious, and lots of nasty bits (the "undesirables" are removed from the wood - leaving only the "good stuff" behind.

Many years ago, I asked my father how to carve an Elephant. He said that the answer was simple - take a block of wood, and remove all the bits that are not "elephant"! Making Bio-Coal is very much the same process. Wood has "stuff in it that causes no end of aggravation to those who want to burn it. SO - all we had to do was figure out what this "stuff was, and GET RID OF IT! Simple!

Not so simple. Unlike my proverbial piece of wood, there's a whole lot going on, inside the particles, and finding the right carving knife (one that can remove molecules) was a larger challenge than first anticipated. It would seem that this was not quite as simple as first envisioned.

So - time to rethink our position. What we needed, was a way to figure out just exactly what the heck was going on inside the wood particle, without actually being able to see it. We knew the goal - as we have a clear definition of what the end product needed to be.

This is achieved thorough a marvellous process called "Computational Fluid Dynamics". Essentially, the process involves creating a virtual reactor, with virtual wood particles, that have a virtual heating source and virtual air-flow passing them. Now, don't get me wrong, but it would seem that even with a complete understanding of the mechanisms at work here, this would take one heck of a computer to simulate. ENTER - The Super Computer! This little baby can undertake 20 BILLION calculations per second! All of the equations that apply to this process, from first and second order chemical reactions to thermodynamic breakdown, this Machine will do everything but make a good cup of coffee.

Of course - there is the small matter of KNOWING what the heck is going on inside the wood particles, and that's the job of the Synchrotron. (See my earlier posts.)

Now - Knowing EXACTLY how to undertake the process is one thing.

Actually MAKING IT HAPPEN is something else.

Enter - the PLC (Programmable Logic Controller.) A PLC is sort of the "traffic cop" of the system. It takes in information form a bunch of sensors, and then tells the various bits of equipment what to do (They're bossy little buggers these PLC's!). Somewhere, tucked neatly away in its "brain", is a set of instructions and codes that let it direct traffic inside the Reactor. Sometimes it lets more heat in, other times more airflow; still other times it opens or closes valves, or switches or gates, to allow for the continuous flow of product - without creating any traffic jams. Too much gas being created - NO PROBLEM - just lower the temperature for a bit; not enough roasting going on - increase the fan speed. Simple really. And get this - it makes adjustments at the rate of 100 times per second! (If only the traffic Cops could do this - I would NEVER have to sit in gridlock again.)

Now the traffic cop has the equivalent of a battalion of CCTV cameras to help it. These have diverse and funky names like "Aneroid Barometric Differential Gauge", "Thermocouples" (although - I have never heard of a "thermosingle") and MAP (Manifold Absolute Pressure) Sensors. These little "eyes in the sky" are constantly feeding information to the PLC - so that it can do its job in the most expedient and efficient way.

In the end, the goal is for everyone to get along famously inside the Reactor, and produce a consistent, homogeneous and appropriate fuel.

The journey continues.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Quest for a definitive Description of Torrefied Wood

In the World today, there are actually no more than 7 or 8 machines making torrefied wood. All of these only exist at a laboratory or pilot plant scale, the largest one produces enough material annually to run a power station for about 3 minutes.

Needless to say - this isn't exactly a statistically significant amount of anything. As power Stations require much higher volumes of this to prove ANYTHING - (and it currently isn't available) we have decided to take matters into our own hands, and prove it Scientifically! (What a concept!)

In spite of the above, there is an ENORMOUS difference between the production of these various reactors.
Some product is relatively low calorific value (21 to 22Gj/tonne) while other product is extremely high calorific value (33 to 34 Gj/tonne)
Some has an HGI (Hardgrove Grindability Index) of 35; while others has an HGI of close to 50
Some have fixed carbon content of 25%; others has 70%

So, how do we know who is right? And who is wrong?

The answer lies in the ultimate definition of what Torrefied wood (Bio-Coal) is. This, is determined by many factors - the predominant one being the demands of the Utility Companies that will utilise the product.

Our definition of torrefied wood is as follows:

"Torrefied wood is completely desiccated biomass, with devolitilised hemicellulose, which has not yet reached the point of “char”. That is to say – that pyrolysis, in any form, has not yet commenced. When the critical surface moisture content of the particle is reached, the evaporation is assumed to take place inside the particle in the moving front between dry and moist regions. In the next stage the surface temperature of the particle never exceeds the pyrolysis temperature. In this case, it means that the drying isotherm reaches the centre of the particle and vanishes before the pyrolysis isotherm appears at the particle surface."

In the above context - the "drying isotherm" is meant to be the torrefaction temperature (from surface to core) that initiates and completes the devolitilization of hemicellulose.

There - NOW you know.

ACTUALLY - that is only part of the equation. (You didn't think this was that SIMPLE - did you?)

ANYBODY can make charcoal - it's been done for 1,000 years or more. ANYBODY can also dry wood. This is a well understood process. Torrefaction is a mystical point, somewhere in between the two extremes. The real challenge lies with the fact that there really is no IDEAL, and many of the desirable characteristics are diametrically opposed to each other.

Let me explain . . . . . .

Everybody knows that the higher the Calorific Value - the better the fuel. RIGHT? (Wrong) Certainly - a high CV is a plus, but it is also a minus. On the plus side - there is increased grindability (easier to pulverise); better particle shape; and better combustion characteristics with increased CV. HOWEVER - this comes at a price. That price is measured in a marked DECREASE in both Durability and ease of pelletisation.

I was recently in Taiwan, and met the most diligent and enthusiastic University student I have ever known. His remit was to pelletise a quantity of "torrefied wood" that had been purchased from a company in the USA. It took me about 10 seconds to figure out that it was charcoal. As it happens, I had the Managing Director of the International Charcoal Cooperative Association sitting beside me to validate my hypothesis. (He said it was charcoal too - but not very high quality) ANYWAY - this tenacious student had ACTUALLY figured out how to turn this charcoal into a pellet. (No mean feat as there was likely ZERO lignin left in the product!) There was however, one tiny problem. If you dropped the pellet from more than 100 mm (that's about 4" in old money) it shattered into its constituent components - and left a lovely little pile of dust on the table. (Very reminiscent of a Rorschach Test)

While the product did have ONE desirable characteristic - it is fair to say that it failed on others.

Durability is the second key feature of torrefied pellets. Because they undergo a significant amount of handling during their life (Conveyors onto trains; belly-dumps into storage hoppers; screw conveyors into ships; grapples to take them off of ships, etc.) there is the small matter of product durability to consider. The only way to maximise this durability, is to ensure that the product still maintains all of its Lignin (which is the "glue" that binds the pellets together). In order to do that - you need to control very closely the CV. So - there's limiting factor #1.

Limiting factor #2 is dust evolution. In the course of handling and transporting and grinding (in a power plant) the material is subjected to a lot of structural impacts. The one way it rebels is to break down into very small particles. On one hand - this is a good thing - as small particles are VERY desirable for PCI boilers. On the other hand - small particles also have a propensity to Explode, if mixed in just the right concentrations with air. (The ratio is 49 g/m3 - if anyone cares) So - that's a bad thing. (Every Utility I have spoken to says that explosions and fires in their Power Stations are their very LEAST favourite events!) AGAIN - it's a fine balancing act. IF the pellet is made of fine particles - it has a much higher density and durability (little particles tend to stick together more tenaciously than bigger particles) but it also has a much higher Risk of explosion. Bigger particles are MUCH less likely to explode - but compromise the integrity of the pellet - so are evolved more easily during handling.

Hmmmmmmm . . . . . . Bit of a "catch 22", don't you think?

ACTUALLY - there is an optimum balance between CV; Grindability; Durability; Combustibility and Safety.

While we have identified in theoretically, it's time for us to get up out of our comfy chairs and start actually doing some work for a living.

To that end, today - we sat down as a group - and worked up a testing regime, that would absolutely, positively, unequivocally define where this "ideal" is. The method is simple - Make samples of various CV's; pelletise them; pulverise them, combust them, and see what happens! Thankfully - we don't have to do this any longer in a microwave oven or Toaster oven.

The lab has a few bits of kit that are very useful for this sort of analysis. For example, we have a "Differential Recording Bomb Calorimeter". (Pretty cool eh?) This handy-dandy machine has the ability to let us see the unseen. We simply take a sample of the product, load it into the device; turn on the heater, then go have a nice cup of cappuccino while it does its thing. (Have I mentioned that there is a great Coffee Shop at the lab?) Anyway - the machine increases the temperature of the sample to a sweltering 1400 degrees C. All the while, the sensors are measuring various parameters of the process, and dutifully recording them on a lovely chart for us to review. When we return, it's simply a matter of looking at that chart, and wondering what the heck these squiggly lines mean. Actually - it is a very useful tool that tracks the phase-changes and kinetics of the reaction. Because we can couple this with a nifty gas analyser (which will tell you - from a breath sample, which winery that glass of wine you had for dinner last night came from)we know EXACTLY what's going on inside there. (WITHOUT actually looking at anything!) Isn't science wonderful?

Now that we know how our fuel is going to react, we can then start looking at the 4 other parameters, and "fine tune" our system - to come up with an optimum. We have a very good idea where that is (after all - we're not the FIRST people on this planet to research this topic) but we need to be able to PROVE it to Mr. Utility Company - as they're the ones with all the ££££'s to spend.

So - is it Bio-Coal? or is it Charcoal? We are now at a point where we are able to tell you.

Now, don't get me wrong - but this is NOT the end of the story. Once we have optimised the characteristics of the fuel pellets - we then have to make sure that they play nicely with coal. After all - nobody is talking about burning 100% torrefied wood. They all want to mix it with another fuel (the EVIL fossil Coal) and that presents a WHOLE different set of challenges. THANKFULLY - we have a little bit of kit for that too.

The machine is called a "Rotating Anode X-Ray Diffusion Chromatograph". (Again - pretty coll name eh? And I'm the ONLY kid on my block with one of these baby's!)

What this bit of kit does is to blast the living daylights out of a sample of Coal/Torrefied wood with X-rays, while it's inside an oven that is roasting the living daylights out of it (up to TWO THOUSAND degrees Celsius!)In the end, it produces yet another set of squiggly lines, that show us the atomic and molecular signatures of all the product that want to get the hell out of there. It also has the ability to analyse the really tough bits that are left (mostly minerals and other inorganic compounds.

Power stations have this odd requirement that they want to KNOW how the product is going to behave in their boilers. (Personally - I don't see what all the fuss is about ) However - I keep hearing about alkaloid deposition, sintering, agglomeration, slagging and other such "nasty stuff" that apparently is second on their list of least favourite events (right after fires and explosions) So - we make sure that WHEN we burn our wonderful, clean, green torrefied wood with their nasty, dirty fossil coal - it won't hurt their precious boilers. Early results indicate that co-combustion of TW actually has a catalytic effect on the coal, and improves it's combustion efficiency. This is much like wine makes cheese taste better and vice-versa. Hopefully - we will ultimately understand WHY.

In the end - the answers are there - just WAITING for us to discover them. The ultimate goal, is to come up with a recipe, that is the optimised iteration of renewable fuel. One that has the Durability; Grindability; Calorific Value, and Density. So far . . . so good. This research will undoubtedly put us at the leading edge of this industry - and will set the standard for all others to follow.

Wish us luck!


Sunday, 27 June 2010

Risk versus Reward

One of the greatest Challenges in the development of any new technology, no matter how much it has been studied or tested in laboratory conditions, is the issue of Technology Risk. It is this risk, perceived or otherwise, that allows or prevents any technology making the conversion from Laboratory to Factory.

This can be defined in many ways, but is usually limited to 3 key areas:

1) Fitness for purpose
2) Indemnification
3) Scalability


In order for a laboratory developed technology to be Commercialised, the single most important aspect is its Fitness for Purpose. In other words - it will actually do what it was designed to do.

In the case of Torrefaction technologies, this is a yet to be realised goal. Even the best research organisations in the world, have only been able to create a reactor that works at small scale. Even then - the product derived from these bench-top and lab-scale reactors isn't ideal. On top of this, NONE of the current developers are willing to offer the GUARANTEE that their technology will ACTUALLY WORK!

I suppose one could be convinced that if a process works at 10 or 100 kg per hour - it will work just as well at 1,000 kg per hour or more. Nothing could be further from the truth. One has to completely understand the mechanism of torrefaction, BEFORE you can fully appreciate the height and breadth of this hurdle. Our experience is that Investors are unwilling to back something, unless there is either a prior version (that the new developer is seeking to improve upon) or a significant guarantee from the technology owner.

As there are NO operating commercial torrefaction reactors anywhere in the world - the first to develop one takes assumption of all of the risks. Unfortunately - it doesn't necessarily follow that they benefit from all of the rewards as well. In fact - it is highly likely that other developers will benefit MORE than the pioneer. The reason for this is simple;

First to "prove" the technology will change the view of investors on it's viability. That is to say - once SOMEONE, ANYONE has successfully created a Commercial reactor - the investment industry will, as a whole, recognise and ACCEPT that it is now possible. PRIOR to that, (which is where we are today) it is only a THEORETICAL technology. I recall a comment I received about a year ago with respect to torrefaction - "It didn't work 15 years ago - and it WON'T work today". This kind of self-limiting thinking and defeatist attitude runs rampant amongst those who have no vision.

On December 13, 1903, man had never successfully achieved powered flight. On December 14th, the entire world changed when a couple of bicycle mechanics named the Wright Brothers, managed to get what appeared to be an oversize box kite into the air under it's own power. In the same way - 30 seconds AFTER the first Bio-Coal exits the first reactor - the ENTIRE world changes. Most people believe that the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell; The steam engine by James Watt; the light bulb by Thomas Edison; and the radio by Marconi.In fact - here are the Inventors (NOT The ones who commercialised the devices)

TELEPHONE - In 1860, an Italian named Antonio Meucci first demonstrated the working telephone
LIGHT BULB - Heinrich Goebel was likely the first person to have actually invented it, back in 1854
STEAM ENGINE - Thomas Newcomen an English blacksmith, invented the atmospheric steam engine circa 1712
RADIO - Mahlon Loomis - He is called as the "First Wireless Telegrapher" - In 1868

In each of the above cases, the actual inventor received very little benefit from the his labours. It was the names of the person who COMMERCIALISES the invention that became the household word. I have the feeling that torrefaction will end up being very much the same. There are literally HUNDREDS of Companies right now who are "watching" torrefaction closely. Many of them are hedging their bets by contacting ALL of the developers, and gaining an understanding of what they are doing; and how they are doing it. In this way - they hope to be able to "jump in" JUST at the right time, to establish a relationship with the developer. The risk associated with this strategy, of course, is that there is no "shot to nothing". Many of the Torrefaction developers are speaking to several potential Customers (predominantly for the product - NOT the technology) leading each to believe that THEY are the "chosen" ones. Without however, some "consideration", this is all just talk. (Something about "put your MONEY - where your MOUTH is!) It will undoubtedly create some interesting dynamics as things get close to the ultimate end, and the "winners" and "losers" are revealed.


The path to commercialisation is invariably paved with many, many potholes. A major one of these is the liability associated with the design and construction of a machine that has the potential to be a rather large BOMB. (After all - a 5-tonne per hour reactor will contain some 25 tonnes of wood chips at any given time, containing a total calorific value of some 500,000 Mj of energy; operating in an anoxic atmosphere, at very close to the autothermal (exothermic runaway) reaction point; producing combustible and potentially explosive gasses in copious amounts. What could possibly go wrong?

Needless to say - next to the bean-counters (Accountants - who seem to run EVERYTHING) it is the Insurance underwriters that have the most influence on Commercialisation. There is this small matter of
Product Liability that needs to be addressed. After all; if you sell a machine and the customer fills it full of wood chips, and it Catches FIRE or explodes - this is NOT a GOOD thing. It's made even WORSE by the fact that there are people running the machine, and these types of events can ruin their WHOLE day.

SO - the underwriter types tend to be very careful about ensuring that the technology is safe and suitable.


One reactor does not an industry make. Neither does 2; or 20; or 200 for that matter. The key here is that scalability cannot be an arithmetic exercise - it needs to be an exponential exercise. The vast majority of the current technologies in development are already too expensive to be economically sensible. There are some who believe that the economies of scale will reduce this cost - however it is unlikely. The complexity of the machines, combined with the the complexity of the process, necessitates an unusually high Capital cost.

Optimisation of the system would require a whole new philosophy of operations. To that end, one needs to look at the design from a completely different perspective. here are the parameters that guide this philosophy;

Understanding the process so completely that there are no extraneous steps, and only the bare-essential components are included.
The more sophisticated a machine - the less durable and rugged it tends to be. Ideally - the reactor should resemble a 70's vintage Land Rover - rather than a new Rolls Royce.
This is ALL about Systems Integration and Process Control. Almost ALL of the existing technologies are relatively limited in their parametric control. As a consequence - the spectrum of feedstock that they can process is the narrow end of the wedge.
As SI and Process Control represent a large portion of the CapEx; it makes sense to have the ability to expand this function to 2, 3, 4 or even more reactors. Limiting the PLC to 1 reactor per computer (actually - 2 computers as redundancies are necessary for safety) unnecessarily handicaps expansion capabilities.
Undoubtedly, the technology will develop, and improvements in the process will evolve. A non-modular System would be left in the dust of "built-in obsolescence"; UNLESS serious consideration was given to "future-proofing".

It is fair to state that many of the current designs and technologies have travelled so far down a single path, that they are now past the point of no return. This is, in many ways, quite tragic, as the ultimate goal may not necessarily be where it was first anticipated to be.

The Company that can assemble all of these features, is the one that will ultimately control the market for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A sad day for Torrefaction

There are very few people on this planet that want to see Torrefaction Technology Commercialised more than I do. It has become my love, my passion, and goal of my life.

Each day I look to see if that elusive "Eureka Moment" has finally arrived. The moment when a Company or Research facility completes the construction of a Reactor; fills it full of biomass; turns the key, and it spits out Torrefied Wood.

One such moment I have been waiting for with anxious anticipation is the Start-Up of the Stramproy-Green / 4Energy Invest project. Having met the stakeholders and visited the facilities under construction I was SURE that THIS would be the FIRST to market. Alas, such was not to be the case.

On February 2, 2009, I received the following press release "4Energy Invest starts the construction of a lar..."

WOW, I thought to myself; now HERE'S a team that can ACTUALLY make things happen. This would be a WORLD'S FIRST! A €13 million development that has all the makings of a winner! A quick look at the 4Energy Invest stock price revealed the market shared my beliefs and enthusiasm.

7 Months later - another ASTONISHING announcement; Stramproy Green had entered into a 5 year agreement to sell Bio-Coal to Essent Trading.

The press release was clear that this was the largest deal for Bio-Coal signed, ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. FANTASTIC, I thought - A prominent Trading Company; a highly-experienced and credentialed Engineering firm; and a successful Power Generating Company all coming together to a common end. The heading of the Press Release was "DEALS OF THE YEAR!"

THEN - the pieces started falling apart. In December, the 4Energy Reactor was to be up and running. It DIDN'T happen.

On may 6th, 4Energy released their trading update for the first quarter 2010. In part it read -

"The main contract that Renogen (a Wholly-Owned subsidiary of 4Energy) signed for the construction of a large scale torrefied wood pellets production facility in Amel ("Amel III") included a provision of 340k EUR for delay damages in case the commercial operation was delayed beyond the planned take-over date. As of 31 March 2010, it can be firmly established that the amount of delay damages will be due by the main contractor." On December 31st their stock dropped to a low of €4.52. Whether this drop was a consequence of the reactor not completing on time is purely speculation.

This however, was NOT good news. I found it very hard to believe. After all; RWE (parent to Essent) has many highly skilled experts in this industry (having gained much experience, I assume through the investment in Toppel) and wouldn't endorse a technology that would ultimately fail? In my mind - I reconciled myself to the belief that this was just "growing pains", and that ultimately - given enough time, Stramproy-Green would be able to get it sorted out. Remember - there was the small matter of 450,000 tonnes of Bio-Coal that had to be produced for RWE in the future, using the same technology. Even at conservative market values of €180.00 per tonne - this represented €81,000,000.00 of business. (Not a small sum - even by Utilities standards.) By comparison - a few hundred-thousand Euros was a small price to pay in non-performance damages.

On the 15th of January, 2010, KBC Securities Issued an update entitled " 4Energy Invest - BIO-COAL, the GAME CHANGER". The then-current share price was €5.17 - but they predicted a "target price" of €7.80. Of course - their recommendation was BUY! It would appear from this market intelligence that EVERYONE believed that the problems were just small challenges that could be overcome.

Then the Axe dropped yesterday. "EPC Contract with Stramproy Green Technology BV TERMINATED!"

The day before the announcement, the stock dropped to €3.35. In ONE DAY - the stock dropped 9%. To add insult to injury - it is now sitting at a mere 43% of the KBC prediction, made just a couple of months ago, and represents a HUGE drop in value to the Company.

My heart sank.

Surely this wasn't the end?

What about the future?

I suppose that the words of KBC were quite prophetic, in that Bio-Coal is the GAME CHANGER. I don't suppose anyone fully realised that the ABSENCE of Bio-Coal would also change the Game - in an unfortunate way.

As for us, we will quietly continue along, slowly, surely, and methodically engineering our reactor. In a couple of weeks, we will be firing up the DIAMOND Synchrotron,,

and shoot a few 6.3 TwE particles (at almost the SPEED OF LIGHT) at some biomass to watch what happens. This lovely billion-pound instrument has the ability to track the devolitilization process, second my second, on a molecular scale.

After that - it's in to the Rotating Anode X-Ray Analyser. In here, we can heat the biomass to 2,000 degrees and track the kinetic and chemical breakdown on a primary, secondary and tertiary basis. All of this is geared towards our "holy Grail". That is - a full and COMPLETE understanding of the process - so that once the reactor is built - it WILL WORK, and do "exactly what it says on the box."

Stay Tuned - this is getting Interesting.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Torrefaction Technology - Past and Present

The way the industry is developing, you would think that biomass torrefaction was a brand-new concept and process. One that very few people had access to, or knowledge of. Such is not the case.

In fact, there are almost 100 Patents and Patents Pending with respect to the process (ours included). Over time - each one has taken a slightly different approach to the one before it, which has sometimes lead down the path of no return (a path to destruction) and other times, has lead to an improvement of the previous iteration. These can ALL be found here

Below are a few of the patents, and how "modern" advances are directly related to them.

On January 15th, 1901, a certain ALBERT COMTE DILLON DE MICHEROUX was granted a patent, number CH20332, entitled "Four de séchage et de torréfaction" (An Oven for Drying and Torrefaction)


PCA Bergman (Energy Centre of the Netherlands) holds 3 patents, EP1969099, NL1029909, NL1025027, granted between 2005 and 2009. While ECN is considered the "leading" technology provider, this remains to be seen. A failed attempt 2 years ago to commercialise their technology has been resurrected recently with a new Commercial Partner, HOWEVER, even that Partner is STILL "considering other technologies". (I'm not quite sure why???)

In 1989, Roger Gerard patented a machine that is virtually identical to the current Agri-Tech Producers machine, developed by Chris Hopkins at the University of North Carolina.


In 2010, Wyssmont patented their technology (US2010/0083530) by converting their Turbo-Dryer into a so-called torrefaction reactor. Over the past 18 months, Integro Earth Fuels have been attempting to make it work. After much fanfare in the beginning, it would appear that they have fallen below the RADAR, as nothing appears to have come of it.

So, there you have it; Past and present; state of the art and old hat. Funny - but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Torrefied Wood Testing and Analysis

Today, our lab officially opened for business. After searching for months to find a facility that could undertake extensive testing on torrefied material (both wood and wood pellets) we decided to establish one ourselves.

To that end, we now have the equipment and ability to prepare, analyse, test virtually any torrefied biomass, in any combination with coal.

An outline of our capabilities are presented below.

Thermo Gravimetric Analysis

· Thermal stability/degradation investigation of organic or inorganic materials, e.g. polymers, composites, glasses, metals, minerals etc.

  • Thermal stability/degradation investigations in inert or oxidative atmospheres, or in vacuum
  • Determination of organic/inorganic content of mixtures
  • Chemical composition measurements (using appropriate reference standards, accurate quantification of sample composition can be determined
  • Phase transition measurement (e.g. glass transition, clustering, crystallinity, melting point)
  • Quantum - size effect investigation for nanomaterials
  • Reaction kinetics with reactive gases (e.g., oxidation, hydrogenation, chlorination, adsorption/desorption)
  • Pyrolysis kinetics (e.g., carbonization, sintering)

· Any type of solid can be analyzed, with minimal sample preparation (e.g. powders, pellets, chunks, flakes etc)

· Minimum sample size ( at least 0.1mg)

· Qualitative or quantitative analysis

Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy

· Imaging and elemental composition of small areas

· Identification/mapping of elements present in defects

· Quick, “first look” analysis

· Versatile, inexpensive, and widely available

Scanning Electron Microscopy )Hitachi Tabletop Microscope TM-1000)

  • 20 – 1000 times magnification with 2x-4x digital zoom (up to 40 000 x magnification)

  • Requires no metal coating to observe non conducting samples

  • Maximum sample size 70 mm diameter, 20 mm hight

· Elemental microanalysis and particle characterization

· Rapid, high-resolution imaging

· Quick identification of elements present

· Good depth of field

· Versatile platform that supports many other tools

Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry

  • Identifying and quantifying volatile organic compounds in mixtures
  • Offgassing studies
  • Testing for residual solvents
  • Liquid or gas injections
  • Evaluating extracts
  • Evaluating contaminants (thermal desorption)

· Identification of organic components by separating complex mixtures

· Quantitative analysis

· Trace-level determination of organic contamination (low to mid-ppb level for liquids and low nanogram level for solids (Dynamic Headspace Analysis)

Differential Scanning Calorimeter

  • Detection of phase transitions
  • Determination of glass transition temperature
  • Observe fusion and crystallisation events
  • Produce phase diagrams for various chemical systems

Ball Mill

· Grindability testing of samples (Torrefied Biomass)

In the coming weeks and months, we will be bringing more equipment online, to provide a full-spectrum of combustion services.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Torrefaction Myths vs Torrefaction Reality

The torrefaction Industry is one that encompasses virtually every continent on the Globe. No matter where you look - someone, somewhere, is screaming from the mountaintops about their "Proven" or "patented" process that is the Holy Grail of renewable fuel.

If one were to believe the rhetoric and hype, the world is full of operating reactors making millions of tonnes of Bio-Coal. Alas, such is not the case.

As of TODAY (June 17th, 2010) there are NO COMMERCIAL Torrefaction reactors operating anywhere in the world. period.

Plenty of research, testing, trials and prototype (pilot scale) reactors have been built - and some have operated on a continuous basis for hundreds of hours. While this is certainly a necessary step in the Development process; it is no more a commercial unit than a radio-controlled airplane is a Cessna 172.

The people who are yelling the loudest - are the most vague about their operations.

For Example:

"Vega's China Venture to Use Special Torrefaction Technology in Ten Manufacturing Plants"

This headline was splashed all over the Internet, and appears to indicate a major development and implementation of the technology. One only has to look a little closer, to read all of the "will's", "wants to", intends to", etc. (along with the ever-present disclaimer that says these are "forward looking statements - which may, or MAY NOT be true"

Hmmm . . . . .let me see - publish whatever you want - to create market hype and pump up the value of your stock; then hide behind anonymity when it comes to substantiating your statements. Even DIRECT requests to the Company have resulted in no response.


The American Corporation indicated that they were on the verge of operations. Let's see - where I come from - this would mean that:

1) They have a physical plant facility, somewhere on this planet, that has the ability to make torrefied wood.
2) They have a technology, and the attendant machinery, to undertake torrefaction.
3) They have a product (Bio-Coal) that is accepted in the marketplace. (Presumably by large power generation Utilities)


One has to wonder what they do have. Well . .. in the past few months, they have a virtually total abandonment by the Board of Directors; they have cancelled all of their MOU's; LOI's and Framework Agreements, and they have a significant debt - with no income.

"New Earth Renewable Energy Inc. uses proprietary technologies to develop and produce alternatives to fossil fuels"

WOW! Not only do you get ONE product (like "old fashioned" Torrefaction) you get THREE products. It would appear that they have gone above and beyond the technology hurdle - and gotten to a THIRD GENERATION process. A very small amount of research revealed that they are, in fact, using an existing technology (Pyrovac) that was developed in Quebec, Canada; operated for a short period of time; then "mothballed". Certainly - the Technology exists; the Reactor Exists, but it is a LONG way from being anything even CLOSE to torrefaction.

Add to all of this, a multitude of Companies promoting "proven torrefaction technology". In one form or another, these "intermediaries" are touting technologies that have been trialled - and, for one reason or another - not completed. Case in Point - Integro Earth Fuels did a lot of development work on the Wyssmont dryer. I haven't heard anything from Walt Dickinson (Integro) for almost a year now, since he was faced with the inevitable tar problem that a system of this faces. Perhaps after the initial flurry (where it seemed like every second week there was another "announcement" of their achievements) the reality of the technology challenge has finally hit home.

The one question that everybody seems to be asking is - "IF the technology is PROVEN and OPERATING, WHY are the Major Utility Companies not beating a path to their door?" After all - this product "ticks ALL the boxes" in terms of CO2 Reduction; Environmental Sustainability; economics, etc. Other than RWE investing in Topell; and Vattenfall recently signing up with ECN, it would appear that the Majors are still sitting back and taking a "wait and see" attitude. Surely - if the claims made were TRUE - there would be NO HESITATION in adopting the technology.

So here is the OFFER:

We have several HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS STERLING available, to develop a biomass to fuel manufacturing facility, for ANY Company that can substantiate their claim of an economic, cost-effective, operating torrefaction reactor.

Simple as that.