Sunday, 25 March 2012

On the road of Experience . . .

Many years ago, a songwriter penned the following words:

On the road of experience, I'm trying to find my own way.
Sometimes I wish that I could fly away
When I think that I'm moving, suddently things stand still
I'm afraid 'cause I think they always will

We are all, as developers, on that "Road of experience". As much as I would love to say that some maturity exists in this nascent Industry; reality doesn't mirror desire.

Case in point . . . The recent Fire at Stramproy-Greens Steenwijk Torrefaction Plant.

In spite of highly experienced Design Engineers . . .
In spite of independent Third-Party assessment and Validation . . . .
In spite of all best efforts . . . .

The worst possible of all scenarios - AKA FIRE - reared it's ugly head.

Now the very last thing that any biomass manufacturer or consumer needs is to have their plant go up in smoke. (Just ask RWE at Tilbury) These types of events, while destructive, are also instructive. Lessons learned enhance the Database of understanding, and provide for the opportunity to prevent History from repeating itself.

Along this road, for which we have no map, there have been many twists and turns. Thankfully - we are merely part of the convoy - and not in the lead. During the course of the Journey - we have seen many dash out in front - at breakneck speeds; This of course, left the rest of the pack in their dust.

However . . . a short time later - they were found on the side of the road, either broken down or worse (upside down in a ditch - in a ball of flames).

There are many old adages that apply - the one I like best is "Slow . . . and steady . . wins the race. Development of any new technology is always a difficult choice of being first to market - or just getting to market. Rapid development comes with it several inherent dangers:

  1. Lack of thorough investigation - with the resultant disappointment
  2. Premature launch - and the consequence of ill preparedness
  3. Industry suspicion - driven by the "Eureka" complex
The consequence of the above can be anything from setbacks to catastrophic failure.

We have watched as many Companies have apparently jumped to the front of the queue, well ahead of us. I have lost count now of the number of "ready to go" systems that are being marketed. The first question that comes to my mind is - "How on Earth did they do that? Seemingly appearing out of the ether - and launching on to the scene with a flurry and a flash. Alas . . . none of them, so far, have passed any measure of due-diligence on the part of a ready and waiting customer base.

Now if you have read my previous blogs, you will know that there are a few things you need to do, to prove out the functionality of a torrefaction Reactor System. As reality is Always reality - there are no ways to circumvent these. Try as I might - I am yet to find any evidence of a 1,000 tonne plus test burn of torrefied fuel, at a Power Station. (Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this?) Certainly - there have been many, MANY small burns (<1 tonne); and that is a natural first step. The real "acid test" is proof of product through use. This takes a dirty big pile of fuel, in a dirty big burner, of a dirty big power station.

Investors are a funny bunch. The moment you have a catastrophic failure at one site - it overshadows the entire industry with a black cloud, and creates an even more difficult situation for the rest of us. ("when I think I'm moving, suddenly time stands still"). As one would assume (perfectly naturally) the investors get nervous - and it halts, for a while, the interest; until someone addresses the problem - and comes up with a way to mitigate or eliminate it. After all, profits are derived from operations - and when your facility is burnt to the ground - it isn't making any money - which tends to upset even the most patient funder. (Not to mention - the Insurance Industry)

Recent events have only served to highlight the over-riding question "How do we know - what we DON'T know?" One of the joys of development - is travelling around that next turn - and seeing what's there. Let's hope it isn't a brick wall!

"Sometimes I wish that I could fly away . . . . . . . "


P.S. - I tried to put a small video of the explosivity testing we are doing. Unfortunately - it appears that I haven't got the necessary skills to do so. If anyone would like to see the fire and brimstone that is the consequence of mixing Bio-Coal powder and a spark - let me know and I will email it to you. In the meantime - The photo above is a 1m3 ISO Explosion vessel.