Sunday, 18 September 2011

Come out . . . Come Out . . . WHEREVER you are

Well folks, here it is, almost the end of 2011, and the much promised and highly touted "Arrival" of torrefaction seems to have escaped us again.

This point was made abundantly clear a few days ago, when the Daily Tar Heel (The UNC's Campus Newspaper) published a sad reality. . . . .

“ We've confirmed that there is no torrefied wood material out there,” said Ray DuBose, director of Energy Services.

Seems as though that just about sums it all up.

CERTAINLY - there have been many, MANY claims by a multitude of developers, that THEIR technology was ready to go, in fact, already producing copious amounts of the elusive and somewhat enigmatic "Bio-Coal".

I can recall at least half a dozen developers "announcing" that they have product in the "thousands of tonnes" - just waiting for a home. Well - in spite of issuing TWO tenders, even the UNC couldn't come up with any.

There is lots and LOTS of rhetoric and Hype floating around right now about "Zilkha Black" pellets. Unfortunately - here is the sad reality - This product is no more torrefied wood than chicken S**T is chicken soup.

Several requests from yours truly resulted in absolutely no response whatsoever. Undoubtedly - they have come to the realisation that a peer review and scientific scrutiny is not something that their product can withstand. However - every Major Utility I have spoken to in the UK and EU have pretty much drawn the same conclusion that I have.

As for us, we just keep going on our merry way, and continue with our Joint-Development Project (with a Major UK Utility) to validate the combustion characteristics of our torrefied pucks. Now, make no mistake - this is not earth-shattering volumes (in fact - the total production will only be 6,000 tonnes) but it is yet another step in the right direction.

On a positive note - I did have a trip this summer to my old stomping grounds in California. Other than the fact that I was on antibiotics (for a toot infection) and couldn't partake of the lovely fruit of the vine that the Nappa and Sonoma Valley's are so famous for; it was a very successful and pleasant trip.

You want to keep your eyes on a Company Called "Renewable Fuel Technologies". These guys, while predominantly a group of Computer geeks (and I say that in the most affectionate way) have developed one of the best Process Control systems I have seen to date. As we all know - torrefaction is NOT about the Hardware; after all, the equipment is little more than silos or drums with heat exchangers and burners and fans attached; but rather about controlling the process.

The RFT system is targeting the "Mobile" market - and as such, will be unlikely to make large penetrations into the Industrial Sector. HOWEVER - and this is a BIG however - their scientists and engineers have come as close to a perfected PCC as I have seen. In fact - it is so unique, that we would like to license it for our reactor automation.

In almost every respect - these boys have the "right stuff". No fancy-schmancy bits of kit; no microwaves; plasma generators; deep fat fryers or any other superfluous peripherals. JUST good engineering, based on sound scientific principles, applied in a sensible and economical fashion.

Yet again, a Company that doesn't shout from the mountaintops, but rather carefully and methodically moves through the development process is one that is becoming an Industry leader. Well done Chad, Mark, and the "boys"!

I read today, yet another Master's Thesis on Torrefaction. Funny - but it would appear that this subject has been "Done to DEATH". Somehow - (and not surprisingly) nothing new was revealed. (Fell free to contact me if you would like a copy - it makes interesting bedtime reading) The fact remains that there is virtually NOTHING that isn't understood about the process of Torrefaction from a scientific point of view. I suppose however - that as long as Universities have funding - they will continue to try and reinvent the wheel at every opportunity. Seems to me that it's a bit like walking around with blinders on. Surely the Academic community actually TALK to each other, and even a tiny amount of research would reveal that there simply isn't the need for ANOTHER Thesis on the devolitilization of Cellulosic Biomass through torrefaction?

However - who am I to say?


We have now identified the requirement for no less than THREE distinct reactor types, to undertake torrefaction of the variety of major feedstocks. Sorry folks - but there isn't, and WON'T be, any "One size fits all" solution. In the end - this is good news, as it provides for the development of niche markets for each type, addressing the supply chain specifics of various locals.

In the end - the quest continues. So - all you developers who have been singing your praises to anyone who would listen - Come out . . . Come out . . . wherever you are!

I'm off now to go blow a few tonnes of powder through a 350 MW PFI Burner.


P. S. I have had a number of requests lately, asking me how to tell if a developer has a "bankable" technology. The answer is simple - Ask the developer to show you his Purchase order, for a few million tonnes per year of product, from a major utility. SIMPLE!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Giant is Awakening

It was inevitable that it would happen.

The second largest Country in the World, with vast forest resources, would ultimately recognise the benefits of a Technology like Torrefaction.

Of course - I am referring to Canada.

It would appear, that there is significant momentum in both Political, Financial and Industrial circles as stakeholders start facing the realities of CO2 Reductions and Environmental Responsibility.

Of course - this is starting somewhat of a "gold rush" as the dash to biomass heats up. No longer are Torrefaction developers listed among the "also-ran's", they are now among the front runners in Renewable Energy Development.

All one needs to do is look at the likes of Ontario Power Gen; Portland General Electric; WPAC; CANMET; NRCan, and a host of others, to see that this once "curious" technology (Bio-Coal) is now the sweetheart of the industry.

This, of course, is very good news for those of us tinkering away in our Labs and workshops.

What amazes me most, is the complete lack of understanding about Torrefaction technology and Torrefied Biomass supply chains. Take, for example, the major Steel Companies; Cement Companies, Glass Companies, etc. These industries consume enormous amounts of energy, (After all - to make these products - you need to melt ROCKS) and are significant contributors of CO2 and other GHG's.

For the most part, we have focussed solely on Utilities and Power Stations. Somehow - it seems as though we have been walking around with blinders on. There are so many other high-energy use industries that can benefit from Bio-Coal, that it seems naive to ignore them.

Many millions of dollars are now being pumped into the commercialization of this technology. In BC, the WPAC has received funding to study the benefits of torrefaction.

In Quebec - Energex are moving towards a commercial reactor technology, with the Manager driving around the country with a 40 pound bag of "the future of Biomass Fuel" in his pick-up truck.

The CCPC is looking at ways to develop torrefaction for co-combustion

In Nova Scotia, the Government has provided $1.7 million for a torrefaction study under the Atlantic Innovation Fund

All in all, it would appear that Canada is becoming a hotbed of Torrefaction.

The future is exciting, and holds great promise for this technology.

On the European side of the Atlantic, Topell are just about ready to fire up their Commercial Plant.

4Energy Invest seems to have worked out the bugs in their system, although they having some financial problems and are looking for money now

Stramproy-Green are still walking towards commercialization, however they too have a few kinks to work out still (It appears that their Cool-Coal didn't quite have the "right stuff", and Essent burned one truckload - and no more) But RWE are NOT worried - as they have also locked up the supply from Topell. (Good plan - I would say)

A couple of new players have entered the market:


One Company is headed up by a malpractice Lawyer and Real Estate Developer; the other, has dubious credentials.

However - they may very well be credible and viable organisations. Each offers "Turn-Key" torrefaction facilities available to purchase TODAY. I wonder if the major Utilities are aware of these Companies? It would seem to me, that they would be beating a path to their door, and lining up to get a hold of the technology.

As for us - we plod along slowly but surely. Our current activity includes the construction of a 1-tonne per hour demonstration reactor that is headed for Canada (Ontario) for field trials and testing; Which will then be sent on to Oregon for further testing; and a 5-tonne per hour Commercial plant for a large production run here in the UK.

We have received our first order for 6,000 tonnes of this "black gold" (Although - it's actually brown) and it is the next step in our development path.

On a final note - I was speaking to a colleague of mine after a recent conference on Torrefaction.

He exclaimed that "you know . . . torrefaction developers are all liars when it comes to where they are in the development process."

I agreed but explained that "we never listen to each other - so it really doesn't matter".

Onward and upward . . . . .


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Complete and Comprehensive Overview of Torrefaction Technologies

Well Folks, we have finally managed to get the Report published online.

Since it's initial announcement, it has grown from 29 to over 50 Developers, Promoters and System Designers.

We have also included expanded sections on complimentary technologies (HTC, Bio-Char, etc).

As the industry is changing rapidly, we will also be publishing a quarterly update, which will chronicle key milestones in the Commercialisation of this technology. One example - is a new entrant into the field. Whetsell Energy of Lexington SC is planning on a 250 Tonne per day torrefaction reactor, as part of a consolidated development that includes Bio-Coal, Bio-Diesel and High-Grade; Low Sulphur Coal.

Here is the link to our Report:

We hope that this will help to separate the "Torrefact" from the "Torrefiction"


Thursday, 17 February 2011

Pyrophoric Carbon, Oxygen depletion and other things

As if we didn't have enough to worry about already with Explosivity and dust generation hazards, a new and challenging issues has raised its ugly head.

Seems that torrefied biomass has this nasty little characteristic called Pyrophoricity. Essentially, it means that the product will smolder, and eventually self-ignite. Now, this can't be a good thing.

This nasty habit is a function and consequence of the thermal treatment process. While the mechanism is not well understood, the oxidation reactions seem to be integrally linked to the modification of the transverse permeability and disruption of the microstructure. We believe that this provides greater oxygen diffusion, and precipitates the reaction.

"Transverse permeability"? "Disruption of Microstructure"? What the heck is that? ;-)

Actually, in simple terms, it means that the opening of the cellular structure within the biomass (Which is a good thing - as this is the mechanism that provides for better grindability) also allows for increased diffusion of Oxygen.

Of course - Oxygen causes Oxidation, and the torrefied biomass contains large amounts of carbon to be oxidized.

Net result - the creation of CO and CO2. (and heat)

NOW - when it is stored in the fresh air - this is not a real problem - but - stick it into the hold of a ship - and what you have is a recipe for disaster.

Not too long ago, there was a tragic fatality in Sweden, where a dockworker walked down a stairway into the hold of a ship carrying wood pellets from Canada. The oxygen down there had been depleted, and replaced with CO2. The consequences were catastrophic.

Most biomass emits CO2 in storage. Switchgrass, for example, emitted about 1800 p.p.m. (Parts per million) in closed-container testing. Torrefied wood, on the other hand, emitted over 12,000 p.p.m. in the same tests. This is not a good thing.

At low concentrations, CO2 is categorized as a simple asphyxiant. A CO2 concentration of >15,000 p.p.m. will cause headaches, dizziness, heart rate increase, and induce coma. (And that can ruin your WHOLE day!)

CO, on the other hand, prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood, and starves the brain and other parts of the body. The exposure limits are much lower ( 25-50 p.p.m.)

SO - it would appear that the two key characteristics that make Torrefied fuel so desirable (high Carbon content and good grindability) might also be their "Achilles Heel".

We're working on a solution . . . . and will let you know when we find one.


Friday, 28 January 2011

Another Milestone Reached!

Today, after 24 months of work, we were FINALLY successful in densifying torrefied wood into a puck suitable for utility fuel as a coal replacement.

This was done as a cold pressing without any binders, or additives. We were able to achieve a mass density of 1200 kg/m3, which was one of our primary targets.

Now that I have these little "gems", I think I might just go ahead and have them gold plated. After all, at 3 grams each - and with an investment so far of over £100,000.00 to make them, they have cost far more than GOLD!

However, at the end of the day, it has all been worth it. The sense of achievement and pride in this accomplishment has made my week. Of course, there is still a LONG way to go - but this hurdle was the tallest one in the race.
Now, we can move forward with grindability, Hydrophobicity, Durability, and other tests, in our never-ending quest.
I think I'll go and celebrate!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The various flavours of torrefied biomass fuel

In the Petroleum Industry, hydrocarbon fuels come in various "flavours", and various grades in each flavour.

lets see . . . There's Gasoline, both regular and high octane; Diesel; Kerosene; Jet Fuel; Bunker C; heating Oil, and assorted blends (Bio-Diesel, Gasohol, etc.)

Each fuel has specific chemical and physical properties for the job at hand. Torrefied biomass is no different.

As we progress along the fuel validation path, we have come to learn that there will be several different "Grades" of torrefied Fuel. Some will be suitable for small biomass boilers; others for large Utility burners, and still others for Industrial processes (like Cement Manufacturing).

The problem is, that there is no "one size fits all" solution. If you take wood chips designed for a pulverised fuel injection burner, and try to feed them into 500 kW chip boiler, the results are, at best disappointing - at worst - catastrophic. By the same token, a fuel that works perfectly well in a Cement kiln, would clog up a Utility boiler faster than you can say alkaloid deposition.

There's only one TINY problem associated with defining the various Grades of fuel. That is, we can no longer rest on our laurels as experts in thermodynamic and chemical processing; we now need to completely understand combustion. (And here - I thought that once we cracked the torrefaction process we would be finished. How wrong we were.)

Developing a fuel that is all things to all men is roughly akin to genetically engineering an animal that is part Pig (for bacon and ham); part chicken (for eggs and meat); part Cow (for milk and steaks); and part fish (for Omega 3, and other good stuff). Somehow, it just doesn't seem possible. I think it might be easier to grow a fruit tree that has apples, pears, peaches, plumbs, oranges and avocados on it. (And actually - through the magic of grafting, my father was able to successfully grow one that had 3 varieties of each of the first 2 - but that's another story.)

But I digress . . . Back to the business at hand . . . . . .

In our never ending quest to add clarity and relevance to the market, below is an outline of what we see as the primary Grades of Torrefied Biomass Fuel.

  1. Smokeless Chips. (SC) This grade, is designed to replace standard wood chips in small to medium scale biomass boilers. It has been processed to a point of having most of the PAH's removed, (these, if you care, are Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, and not very nice at all) but hasn't been processed to the point of being physically altered enough to become friable and fragile. Now the benefit to this, is really measured in improved Air Quality. Many jurisdictions aren't in love with the emissions from the ever increasing number of chip boilers being installed. Just as, in the UK, the transition from coal to "smokeless coal" in residential and commercial buildings was mandated many years ago - there will be a transition from chips to Smokeless chips in the years to come. We'll all breathe a little easier because of it.
  2. Pulverised Fuel Injection (PFI) By far and away, this will be the predominant fuel manufactured from Biomass. Within this grade, will be three varieties: "VW" (Derived from Virgin Wood); "AR" (derived from Agricultural Residues); and "RM" (derived from Recycled Material) Each fuel will carry its own credentials, in terms of environmental impact; embodied energy and sustainability. Again, utilisation will be at the whim of the local authorities, who will control utilisation and acceptability, based on their own unique views.
  3. Industrial Process (IP). This fuel would be specifically designed for the Cement, Steel and Glass manufacturing industries. Those boys use a LOT of energy (after all - to make these things - you need to melt rocks!) and want their fuel to have an energy content capable of heating a furnace to about one third of the surface temperature of the sun. Now don't get me wrong - I use as much glass and steel and concrete as the next guy, but BOY, that's a hot flame!
So, there you have it. Just when I think we've gotten to our destination, we learn that it is merely just another station stop on the way. Sometimes I get the feeling that we're 90% finished - with 90% to go.

If anyone would like to discuss the detailed "science things" behind this, feel free to contact me.

Jumping out of the frying pan, into the fire . . . . .