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!