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.