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.


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Journey Begins

After 18 months of research, travel and study, the time has come to start designing, engineering, modelling and building our own torrefaction technology.

The patents are now applied for; the site has been selected; the Development partner has been chosen.

In 12 to 14 months, we will have an operating, commercial scale, torrefaction reactor to make Bio-Coal (torrefied wood pellets)

As my good friend and mentor keeps reminding me (every time I spout off about the progress we have made so far) "You are FIRST - among EQUALS, who DON'T have a commercial torrefaction reactor"

My only response to that comes via Bob Dylan - and I remind him that "The times - they are a Changing"

In the coming months, you will be able to track the reactor development; follow our path to commercialisation, and watch the roll-out of our technology worldwide.

The Path to commercialisation of Bio-Coal still has many unanswered questions:

Why use Torrefaction Technology?
What are the best strategies for cost optimisation of Torrefaction Processes?
Is the technology really that Complex?
What are the Technological Risks?
What can go Wrong?
The challenges are great

The time-frame is short

The finances are tight

but The GOAL is worth achieving.