Saturday, 1 March 2014

I haven't been so excited since the birth of my daughter, 31 years ago.

Very few event's register as monumental in ones life. Of course, there are the BIG 3 - Births, Marriages and Deaths; but not very often many more.

This week, is one of those monumental weeks.

I received word today that the Torrefaction System was loaded on the Boat in Norfolk, Virginia, and is powering its way across the Atlantic, destined for Liverpool Docks. This has become my new "baby".

Now I'm probably one of very few people who could get excited about the arrival of a bunch of steel and wires; pipes and ducts; and miscellaneous bits of kit. However - THIS is the culmination of 5 years of effort, energy and struggle, to get to this point.

It has taken the efforts of a large and divers group of people, to turn what once was a dream, into the reality. Scientists, Engineers, technicians, financiers, etc. have all come together in this quest.

The new home is being prepared as we speak. The feedstock is being lined up, and the truck scheduled. All things being equal, by the end of the month, we'll be in full operation.

Once we commission the unit, it will produce a steady supply of smokeless chips, on a daily basis. These will then be run through the pelletiser or briquetter, and then be sent off to their respective customers for field trials in a multitude of burners and boilers.

The feeling of anticipation is one of a young child, the week leading up to Christmas. I can hardly contain my excitement, and have gone over the operations and procedures a hundred times now; checking and re-checking, to make sure that nothing is missed.

What the Big Deal? Well - for the first time, the UK will have a supply of Biomass Fuel, that is a much cleaner burning and lower emission version than unrefined wood chips and pellets. It will also have the first drop-in Bio-Coal replacement for fossil coal, that can be added to power station fuel supply chains, with no modifications.

For the first time, adulterated post consumer wood waste will be able to be consumed in virtually any boiler, without needing a WID Compliant system.

For the first time, there will be a low emission biomass fuel option, which ensures that air quality is maintained at all times, and that the appliances perform to their listed capacity.

I even have some baby pictures . . . Hope you enjoy them.

 All wrapped up and ready to go.

 Her new home in the UK.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A classic case of "LESS . . . is MORE"

We've all heard the old adage.

I apply it to my living conditions (I tend towards a rather Zen belief that is minimalist in terms of furnishings and accessories) poets apply it to prose, and wise men apply it to what they say. I've always subscribed to the belief that quality, is far more valuable than quantity.

There is however, one instance, where the literal sense of the phrase is apropos. And that instance is when it comes to Flue Emissions.

Almost anyone who has been alive longer than 30 years can remember the black coatings on most buildings in industrialized Cities throughout the UK. They can also remember the thick smog that was a consequence of the almost universal use of Coal as an energy source. While it certainly fed the Industrial machine, it did bring a lot of consequences that were less than desirable.

So - Something had to be done. And what was done, was to outlaw the use of smokey fuels (Like low ranking coal) and mandate the installation of treatment systems for any large Utility combusting the stuff. Now while this created a temporary boom for the flue gas treatment companies, the cost of meeting ever increasing (or is that decreasing?) strictness on emissions, has become a major contributor to the demise of many power stations. It simply was no longer economical to operate.

With the advent, and strong support by the government, of Biomass heating Systems, the hue and cry is emanating from the wilderness. People are starting to voice their opposition to the combustion of solid fuels,as they say it disrupts their peaceful and quiet enjoyment of life. Now, in this day and age, combustion technology has improved greatly, and new systems are very "clean" (relatively speaking) but there is still more work to be done.

The recent changes to the RHI, and the addition of a stringent set of Air Quality regulations, is a case in point. In order to meet its Carbon Reduction Objectives, the UK Government has targeted Biomass Heating as a primary goal. The increase in numbers of systems to the thousands, from the current tens of hundreds, is inevitable. Alongside that comes the inevitable.

The search is on for a solution.

What we do, is provide a partial solution. We refine wood fuel, into a Bio-Coal product, that has had most of the Smoke Causing volatiles removed from it. Early tests reveal a substantial reduction in NOx and PM emissions. What is substantial? How about 50% less, in some aspects?

Now - this is by no means the be all and end all, it is merely another rung on the ladder. However - we believe that this "smokeless" fuel is a much better option than the untreated alternative.

In what is becoming a highly competitive market, we believe that Manufacturers who can offer a "Low Emission" version of their boilers, will have a distinct competitive advantage. Tuning the systems to this new fuel, and partnering with a fuel supply Company that can provide long-term, low cost supplies is seen as a very convincing offer.

So - the times are changing. In the not-too-distant future, Smokeless wood fuels will be a reality, and the Market will now have a choice.

Which would you prefer? My guess is, that to you - Less, IS more.

Back to the grindstone . . . so much to do . . . so little time to do it.


P.S. - We're still looking to fill a few gaps in our Research program on small to medium boilers, so if you have one, and would like to take part in this research, please let me know.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Journey now continues, but in a completely different direction

It's been a very long road. Full of potholes, uphill stretches, and hazardous curves. The first part of the journey, is now complete though, and it's time to start the new journey.

In a couple of weeks, the Pilot Reactor will arrive in the UK. We've already secured a new home for it, and after 5-10 days of commissioning, it will be put into full time operation.

It's odd, but the drivers that I initially though would carry this forward seem to have faded into oblivion. We envisioned that torrefaction Technology would always be based on demand from Utilities (Like DRAX, E-On, RWE, etc.) when in reality - it's a completely different market that has emerged as the champion of this technology.

In the UK, a couple of years ago, the Government embarked on a subsidy program that was to transform the landscape, in terms of how people heated their homes and water. The Program was called the "Renewable Heat Incentive". In a nutshell, this is really a bribe, that lasts for 20 years, to coerce people to NOT burn Oil, or Gas, or Electricity. The net result? Well, about 98% of the systems installed are Biomass. (The remaining 2% is all of the other technologies combined.)

This, presents an interesting proposition. That is to say - that IF the Government is successful in achieving their goal of 20% reduction in Carbon Emissions by 2020, then somewhere in the neighbourhood of 5 million properties will need to be converted from Fossil Energy to Renewable energy.

Assuming that alongside the Renewable System, the developers implement a program of energy efficiency improvements (Insulation, draftproofing, double glazing, etc. - which is also supported by another subsidy called the Energy Company Obligation) then the average consumption will require about 2 tonnes of fuel per year. Even with my rudimentary grasp of mathematics, I can figure out that this totals over 10 million tonnes of biomass fuel per year, every year, for the next 2 decades.

All of this lead to a single conclusion. That is to say - that the Domestic and Commercial market was just as large as the Industrial and utility market for Biomass fuel. The difference however, is the value of that fuel. While utilities look at the overall cost of the fuel, compared to burning coal and paying the carbon penalties; D&C clients look at the comparative cost of the fossil alternative.

Now - I'm not naive enough to believe that people would switch fuels for the same energy rate (there simply isn't THAT much of a "green" conscience - however - they would switch for a substantial cost savings. In addition, they would also switch for some level of future price security.

Increases in the price of fossil energy in the UK are way out of hand. You can't open a newspaper these days without reading about "fuel poverty", exploitative pricing, or the big bad energy Companies jeopardizing little old ladies and forcing them to choose between heating and eating. While there is some truth to the hype, for the most part - it's nonsense. What IS real however - is that lots of folks are paying more than 10% (sometimes WAY more) of their disposable income to simply provide their family with a comfortable environment to live in. According to the very same Government - "fuel poverty" is defined as exactly that. "Paying more than 10% of your disposable income on energy. There are lots of folks here on fixed incomes (retired, etc.) and in many cases, their income is £70.00 a week or so. Which leaves us with a budget of roughly the cost of a pack-O-smokes, to provide all of their heat and all of their hot water weekly. Oddly enough, the subsidy regimes actually allow us to be able to do this.

Now, wholesale development of Biomass heating systems doesn't come without a cost. And that cost is air quality. You don't have to be very old to remember the "bad old days" of beautiful buildings covered in gooey black soot, and the "smoke (for which London is famous) that hung low over the city on a daily basis. Solid fuel combustion, AKA coal, was the primary heating source, for both residential and commercial properties. This was the source of the problem, so an act was implemented to ensure that only "smokeless" coal was burned. Funny how we seem to be going "back to the future".

In the UK, there is Legislation called the "Clean Air Act". It does what it says on the tin, and purports to ensure that the air quality of the Country is maintained. Now - Biomass boilers have to meet a certain maximum emissions profile, to be "exempt" from said Clean Air Act. Most are. The problem is - that when they were tested for their emissions, it was in a laboratory setting, using a very low moisture, specifically grade size of wood chip.

Enter . . . . reality.

The Client installs his shiny new Boiler System, and once handover is complete, is left to his own devices to find fuel for it. Being as times are tough, and he believes that wood chips are wood chips (Right?) he orders from the most economical supplier. The problem is that wood chips are NOT all created equal. So - what happens?

Well . . . he rapidly learns that the boiler efficiency isn't quite up to the Manufacturers claims - AKA - he's going through a LOT more fuel than the book said he should. Now - it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that a tonne of 50% moisture content fuel is 500 kg of fuel, and 500 kg of water (Which doesn't bring anything to the party.) To add insult to injury - said water has this nasty characteristic called "latent heat of vaporisation" which means you use a lot of the energy contained IN the fuel to boil it off, BEFORE you get any energy OUT of the fuel. Not to mention, the fans inside the blower are going 100 miles an hour to keep the stuff alight - and this is not leaving the boiler a lot of time to absorb the energy from the hot air stream, as it whizzes by the heat tubes. Net Result? 30 . . . maybe 40% efficiency.

To add insult to injury - there's a whole lot of nasty "stuff" in that air stream, which as soon as it contacts a cooler surface (like the inside of the Flues) it decides to condense as a sticky black substance (Most people refer to it as creosote). Of course - this acidic substance slowly eats the flue, and eventually results in system failure.

In addition - the emissions from the boiler shoot up like my blood pressure when dealing with anyone in authority (It doesn't matter if it's a Customs Officer at the Airport, or a bureaucrat at Town hall - I seem to have this aversion to that type of person.) and before you know it - the next door neighbour is screaming bloody murder - and calling the authorities. "YOU approved that Biomass boiler and now I can't sit in my back yard because the smell and the smoke is so bad. WHAT are YOU going to do about it?"

Hmmmm, what to do? What to do?

Now the Government, in their infinite wisdom, decided to decide to make a stab at avoiding this nasty set of circumstances. And believe it or not - they changed the RHI legislation. (WHAT a concept!)

What they said was - that IF you want to collect the RHI Subsidy (and we ALL want to do that) then you actually had to burn a fuel, that was the SAME as the fuel used when the boiler was tested in the factory. ESPECIALLY in terms of Moisture content. (They make 3 separate references to that aspect - so it must be rather important to them.) The Hew and Improved RHI now requires an emission certificate, mandating the quality of fuel that was used during the emission testing, and a maximum moisture content that the fuel is allowed to contain, in order to keep the emissions at the stated levels.

There's only 1 tiny little problem with this. By and large - biomass boilers are tested with fuel that is typically dried to less than 20% moisture content. You see, air quality is directly proportional to moisture content. The more wet stuff there is, the more nasty bits fly out of the top of the chimney. Needless to say, less is more.

The tiny little problem is that with the exception of a few micro-enterprises that actually kiln dry wood chips, THERE ARE NO UK SUPPLIERS of dry chips.

So - now we have a market, ripe for the picking. The government has implemented Legislation, that one could reasonably assume is designed to ensure that Biomass systems emit the lowest possible amount of nasty stuff into the atmosphere for you, I, and everyone else to breathe. One challenge is, that drying wood chips comes at a cost, and while there are some benefits to the end user, often times the cost-benefit doesn't add up. You have to bring more than just higher efficiency, to get the attention of the market. Our Smokeless fuel does just that. Not only does it burn cleaner, for longer, it also reduces emissions, reduces maintenance (lower fly-ash content) and increases the longevity of system components. I think that everyone will appreciate that these benefits are worthwhile.

This is where we come in. You see - when you run the feedstock through our system, not only does it significantly reduce the moisture content, but it goes one step further, and removes most of the smoke-causing volatiles as well. Having said that, I started looking at less expensive alternatives to "natural" wood chips. Lo and behold - up pops "Post Consume Wood Products" (Aka - Construction Demolition Timber, windows, time ex'd furniture, etc.). EUREKA! I shouted - but the joyous celebrations were to only last a short period of time.

As luck would have it, it would seem that we weren't the first people on this planet to recognise that you could grind up this stuff, and burn it in biomass boilers. (I know . . . I was just as surprised as you are.)

It didn't take too many conversations with recycling companies to realise that the plan was leading to a dead end, and that we'd have to be somewhat more creative in our thinking. HOWEVER (and there's always an "however") even though they couldn't supply us with Grade A reclaimed wood chips, they would LOVE to supply us with Grade B. Hmmmmmmm . . . What on EARTH is "Grade B"?

It turns out that Grade B is the same stuff as Grade A, (pre loved articles of lignocellulosic biomass) only, but it has a couple of friends along for the ride. These friends are things like Paints, Stains, Glues, and other aromatics. In their current condition - they are classed as "waste" - and for many people - need to be disposed of at a landfill, at a cost of £71.00 per tonne for the landfill tax. (we told these folks that we would be happy to get rid of their problem for a lot less than that!)

Here's where it gets interesting . . . . You'll remember that I said our technology was able to remove the smoke causing bits in virgin wood? Well, as fortune would have it - the technology also can remove the friends that are along for the ride with the recycled wood. PRESTO! we change the material from a waste product - into a fuel product (Something about residue to revenue) Imagine THAT!

In the end, our focus is now on this value chain. The Pilot Plant will arrive Mid-February; be commissioned by March 1st; and start operations shortly thereafter. (I have already put a picture of myself on the dining room table so my children can remember what I look like, because I don't think I'll leave the refinery for a while, once it's up and running. ;-)

Time to go and dust off my hard hat and high-visibility vest . . . I'm going to need them soon.

Be well.


Monday, 6 January 2014

The Rumors of my recent demise are grossly exaggerated

It was a long time ago that Mark twain uttered that quote. It was also a long time ago that I published my last blog entry.

2012/2013 was an horrendous pair of years for me. In the fall of the former, I was undergoing treatment for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. (A type of leukemia) This marvelous little malady saw me in and out of hospital, clinic and treatment centre for the better part of 6 months. After battling with the malady, it finally decided to give up, and go into remission.

Come summer of 2013, I was again struck down, this time because of a viral infection that attacked my tri-geminal nerve. Now, for those non-medical folks who read this, T-G Neuralgia is known as "Suicide Sickness". The pain is well beyond excruciating, and I know first hand why it was given that name. Unfortunately, treatment initially consists of massive doses of Narcotics (Morphine, and the like) which of course, renders one almost incapable of normal function. My consultant said that I certainly don't do things half way. I had the most painful virus (Shingles) in the most painful site possible.

In the end, after months of treatment, medication, and surgery, I am now back to something that resembles a normal life. It's as if the past 2 years have been wiped out of my history.

So - for those who thought I had died and gone to heaven . . . I'm sorry to disappoint you. Now, it's a case of "that which does not kill us, makes us stronger".

So - to pick up where I left off. 2014 will now be the year that we implement commercial Torrefaction systems in the UK. In conjunction with our partners, we will be building a pair of fuel refineries, that take in roadside clearing wood chips, post consumer wood products chips and convert them into Bio-Coal. The primary market for this production, as it will be quite small (8 to 16 KT per year) will be the residential and commercial heating market. (Mostly small District Heating Networks in the local area.)

Here in the UK, there is a major initiative, that the Government is promoting, called the "Renewable Heat Incentive". This is a long-term support mechanism, that provides a subsidy for Biomass Heating Systems. So far - it has been mildly successful (about 1500 systems at last count) but by all accounts, this will grow exponentially as people make the switch to a low-carbon future.

As torrefied fuel is a low emission version of its whitewood counterpart, there is a distinct advantage to using it. Of course, at that end of the market, there is also a very high value, which sweetens the pot. Air quality is one of the main drivers, and the Government is mandating that the emissions fall well within a prescribed set of parameters. Of course, Bio-Coal is ideal for this.

So the plan is to manufacture 1/3 for that market, 1/3 for the Utility market, and 1/3 for R&D.

In many ways, this is the step we have all been waiting a very long time for. Hopefully, it is the one that launches this marvelous technology on to the market, in our own small way.

Progress updates to follow . . . . .