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.


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