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.

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