It’s been around for a generation or so — fast pyrolysis, that is. Though in the original low-tech incarnation — known as “cooking fire” — pyrolysis has been around since the dawn of man.
But the numbers have never been so close to commercial, even in these days of low fossil fuel energy prices.
Who’s in the lead? Where, why — and when will there be commercial-scale plants?
The pyro backstory
If you’re new to the story of pyrolysis, bio-oil and making a hydrocarbon fuel from biomass, here’s the need to know:
Very early stage of the technology, around 200,000 years ago.
In pyrolysis, the biomass is cooked at high temperatures. Some processes are faster than others, some use a catalyst, some do not. The end result is a conversion of biomass to a combination of light gases and a heavy bio-oil, which has been called bio-crude in some quarters, but bio-oil has had its limitations. Specifically, it’s full of oxygen, which is very different from hydrocarbon fuels (which are, as the name suggests, made entirely of carbon and hydrogen), which make them corrosive and unstable.
Some advantages of the pyrolysis process: it uses the entire biomass, there’s no CO2 byproduct as with fermenation, there’s no need for costly enzymes or other exotic microorganisms to be developed, and the issues with scaling up fermentation are avoided.
Downsides? Several. One show-stopper: bio-oil cannot be used as a transportation fuel. However, it can be upgraded into a stable oil via a process known as hydrotreatment, which extracts the oxygen in a reaction with hydrogen that produces pure water as its byproduct. It’s a process used in the petrochemical industry, and it has been used successfully to remove excess oxygen from organic waste and vegetable oils to convert them into diesel and jet fuel.
At the top of the commercially-scaled, available-now pack, there’s Ensyn — with its partners they have been combusting RFO (renewable fuel oil) for industrial heating purposes for many years. Over 20 million gallons have been combusted commercially in a variety of boilers and furnaces in Canada and the US. In addition, combustion demonstrations have taken place in numerous Government and private-sector facilities in Europe, Brazil, and Malaysia, as well as in North America.
In 2014 Ensyn completed an enhancement of its RFO production plant in Renfrew, Ontario, converting it from a renewable chemicals and heating fuels plant to a dedicated fuels facility producing RFO, Ensyn’s key biofuel product.
Now, there’s RTP technology, developed in partnership with UOP — a pyrolysis process that produces a renewable fuel oil (upgradable to transportation fuel) from waste residues.
Back in April 2014, Ensyn and Honeywell’s UOP announced that their pyrolysis process is capable of producing RTP fuel at scale, a crude oil competitor for a price of $45 per barrel (of oil equivalent). Even more startling, the RTP fuel can be upgraded at the refinery – using a modified (but apparently standard refinery equipment – UOP and Ensyn are being cagey about the exact piece of refinery equipment, but our understanding is that is is widely used, particularly in the US — and we assume its the FCC unit). More on the technology here.
Last April, we heard from Battelle that they had succeeded at the United States Department of Energy challenge to demonstrate at least 1,000 hours of bio oil hydrotreatment on a single catalyst charge, while making commercially viable transportation fuels from biomass pyrolysis.
In a project that has just wound up and stems back to a 2011 DOE grant, Battelle (with partners Marathon Petroleum and the Pacific Northwest National Lab) hit the 1,200 operational hours mark, and achieved a yield of around 60 gallons of finished hydrocarbon fuel per dry ton of feedstock, in an end-to-end process. Let’s put this in perspective. Based on a $55 per ton feedstock cost, that’s less than a dollar per gallon for the raw feedstock inputs, which is unheard of in the world of finished hydrocarbon fuels made from biomass.
Zia Abdullah, Institute Fellow at Battelle, who was Principal Investigator on the project, told the Digest. “Our next step is to scale up to larger reactor sizes, and we need to put more mileage on the catalyst. Can it do 2000, can it do 4000, even 8000 hours? 8000 would buy us us a full year in a commercial plant, one change annually.”
Meanwhile, it was Battelle’s ton-per-day pilot mobile pyrolysis system that supplied the bio oil for its DOE-funded hydrotreating project. Battelle engineers and scientists have developed a mobile device that transforms unwanted biomass materials such as wood chips or agricultural waste into valuable bio-oil using catalytic pyrolysis. As currently configured, the Battelle-funded unit converts one ton of pine chips, shavings and sawdust into as much as 130 gallons of wet bio-oil per day.
Because of its small size, the pyrolysis unit is installed on the trailer of a flat-bed 18-wheel truck, making it mobile and thus transportable to the waste products. This feature makes it ideal to access the woody biomass that is often left stranded in agricultural regions, far away from industrial facilities. It’s potentially a significant cost advantage over competing processes represented by large facilities that require shipment of the biomass from its home site. More on the technology here.
In May, the Empyro pyrolysis oil production plant, opened at the AkzoNobel site in Hengelo (The Netherlands). The plant will produce, apart from the oil, also electricity to cover its own use, and steam. The steam will be supplied to the neighbouring salt factory. The pyrolysis oil will be supplied almost exclusively to the dairy company FrieslandCampina.
The project developers say that production capacity will gradually increase to more than 20 million litres of pyrolysis oil (5.3 million US gallons) per year. This amount of renewable oil will replace 12 million cubic meters of natural gas, the equivalent annual consumption of 8,000 Dutch households, which saves up to 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. Additionally, the project creates approximately 100 person-years of work in Overijssel.
The core conversion process is a flash pyrolysis plant based on BTG technology. In Europe, no commercial pyrolysis oil production plant is in operation. The plant will be based on the design and experience gained by BTG through the construction of a 50 tonne/day pyrolysis plant in Malaysia. The plant design will be further scaled up to a commercially attractive scale of 120 tonne/day (~ 25MWth). The feedstock will be local woody biomass and/or residues. More on the technology here.
#4 Cool Planet
Cool Planet says that “our technology allows us to build smaller, significantly less expensive facilities closer to biomass feedstock, so we can expand rapidly, achieve lower scale-up risk and continuously innovate and improve with each distributed facility.” The timelines have moved back — possibly related to financing. Originally the company was discussing a completion of construction on the first commercial in 2014 — now the word is late 2015 with start-up in 2016.
At the same time, the volume is ramping up more cautiously. The company continues to guide that the first commercial ultimately will have 10 million gallons in capacity, but the initial deployment will be in the 1M gallons range. Also, there have been variances in the discussion around project cost — could be simply media confusion. Certainly we spotted a report in August projecting a $56 million tab for the construction cost of the first commercial, yet the loan guarantee is for a higher amount – $91 million in all. It may well be that the initial project tender is for the first million gallons, and the overall project cost is higher. Or, the loan guarantee could cover 54 percent debt portion of the first three projects. We’ll wait to learn more.
We’ve said it before: The key, in so many ways, is in Cool Terra — a product that has to deliver a substantial market if Cool Planet is to reach its cost and emissions goals.
In October 2014, Cool Planet was issued a $91MM conditional commitment from the United States Department of Agriculture for a loan guarantee to support construction of the company’s first commercial manufacturing plant. The facility will be located at the Port of Alexandria, Louisiana. More on the technology here.
In May 2014, Anellotech announced start-up of its pyrolysis pilot plant, and that it is making available kilogram-scale quantities of green BTX to strategic partners for downstream development. The Anellotech technology is able to work from a variety of renewable feedstocks including palm wastes, bagasse, corn stover, and, for the most recent production, wood feedstocks. Commercial licensing with global production is expected by 2019.
Using its proprietary catalyst, Anellotech’s single step catalytic fast pyrolysis process enables biomass to be converted in a fluidized-bed reactor into commercially viable aromatics, principally benzene, toluene and xylenes.
In January 2015, Anellotech, IFP Energies nouvelles and its subsidiary Axens announced a strategic alliance to develop and commercialize a new technology for the low cost production of bio-based benzene, toluene and paraxylene using Anellotechs process of Catalytic Fast Pyrolysis (CFP) of non-food biomass. The technology will address large-scale units and produce purified aromatics streams suitable for modern derivative production processes at a very competitive price with respect to their petroleum-based counterparts. More on the technology here.
Air Liquide’s bioliq pilot plant, in partnership with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), aims at demonstrating the feasibility of a process to produce high-quality sulfur-free fuel from residual biomass. These “second generation” biofuels are produced using the inedible part of plants. For this project, Air Liquide provided key technologies for the pyrolysis of biomass and gas synthesis as well as the oxygen supply needed for the gasification process.
The plant launched successfully in December 2014 after EUR 64 million in investment. All of the plant’s stages, which produce synthetic fuels from residual biomass, were successfully connected: flash pyrolysis, high-pressure entrained flow gasification, hot gas cleaning, and synthesis. As the bioliq process is based on straw and other biogenic residues, for the cultivation of which no additional areas are required, it does not compete with food and feedstock production. The fuel produced by the pilot plant will be used for test purposes. More on the technology here.
#7 Avello Bioenergy
Avello Bioenergy is commercializing proprietary technology in the evolving field of biomass fast pyrolysis. Based in central Iowa, Avello commenced devloping its demonstration facility in April 2014 and is on a 3-year runway. At it’s last DOE report, it was 8% completed on the $6.33 million project, in which it is partnered with ConTech (EPC), Borrengaard (Product R&D), Cargill (Biofuel oil demo), Virent (R&D), Iowa State (biomass and product R&D) and with APAI, Iowa DOT and USDA as advisors. Economic projections indicate products will be competitive in the $50 – $65/bbl oil equivalent range, without subsidies. Assumes $60 – $70/dry ton for feedstock cost.
The AvelloFRAC process converts biomass into several unique pyrolysis oil fractions and biochar using innovative pyrolysis technology. This versatile, flexible process includes proprietary technology licensed from Iowa State University to produce pyrolysis oil fractions with superior qualities when compared to conventional bio-oil.
AvelloFRAC is feedstock flexible with minimal preprocessing requirements. No chemical or biological pretreatment is required. Acceptable feedstocks include: agricultural residues (corn stover), mill residues, forestry residues (pine), and energy crops (switchgrass, hybrid poplar). Products include Bioasphalt, Chemical Feedstocks, Biofuel Oil and Biochar. More on the technology here.
In February 2015, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) announced $5.2 million funding for Renergi to design and construct an innovative pilot scale biofuel production facility Perth. ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said the project would result in simple, cost effective production of renewable energy from biomass.
“Renergi was created out of Curtin University to commercialise some of its bioenergy ideas. Renergi is aiming to scale up existing technology successfully developed with ARENA funding support,” Frischknecht said. “These projects demonstrate how ARENA’s unique role supports renewable energy technologies across the innovation chain, advancing them from the laboratory to the field. A 100 kg per hour biomass conversion (pyrolysis) unit will be designed and constructed along with a complementary 20 litre per hour biorefinery unit. Biomass like agricultural waste and mallee can be used to produce products that replace fossil fuels, including bio-oil and advanced biofuels.
The $12.9 million project is scheduled for completion in October 2017. More on the technology here.
In March 2014, Fortum, UPM and Valmet joined forces to develop a new technology to produce advanced high value lignocellulosic fuels, such as transportation fuels or higher value bio liquids. The idea is to develop catalytic pyrolysis technology for upgrading bio-oil and commercialise the solution. The five-year project is called LignoCat (lignocellulosic fuels by catalytic pyrolysis). The project is a natural continuation of the consortium’s earlier bio-oil project together with the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, commercialising integrated pyrolysis technology for production of sustainable bio-oil for replacement of heating oil in industrial use.
“We will develop pyrolysis technology enabling improvement of bio-oil quality compatible for further refining to transportation fuels or intermediate products. This is a business opportunity for us, which will lead to new sustainable processes and products. We see a great potential in this project and look forward to continued cooperation,” says Jussi Mäntyniemi, Director, Technology and R&D, Valmet. More on the technology here.
#10 Proton Power
In May 2014, Jim Bierkamp, Proton Power’s business development manager advised: “PPI has been in existence since 2009, and what we have come up with is basically a way to make inexpensive hydrogen – we can do it for less than $2/kg. We are doing this using a patented pyrolysis process that we call CHyP (Cellulose to Hydrogen Power). We have been flying under the radar from a publicity standpoint, but that is about to change in that we will be starting up our first electricity-generating project – a 750kw switchgrass to electricity project utilizing our CHyP technology – and we will be bringing a 1M gal/yr liquid fuels plant online in 3Q of this year at which we will be demonstrating that we can make diesel fuel, for example, for about $1.75/gal. We currently have an order backlog of $320M in real projects.”
Company co-founder Sam Weaver told The Digest, “this process is carbon-negative, producing hydrogen gas or liquid fuels, plus a high temp biochar that is very stable in the ground. It’s a high PH (10-11) biochar with a surface area like an activated carbon. Fundamentally, if we can get feedstock lower than $40/ton we can be lower than gas as the lowest cost producer of electricity.” More on the technology here.
Another interesting sector — waste plastic-to-fuels
It’s not quite renewable in the technical sense, that is fuels made from waste plastics. But it is certainly a reasonable example of carbon capture and use and a perfectly good example of a frugal way to avoid landfilling (or sea-filling) waste plastics. So, while we haven’t ranked some good companies in plastics-to-fuels in the list above, a number deserve a robust shout-out.
For starters, what about www.pyroil.nl, who advise us that “within one year from now we will convert 150 thousand tonnes per year in a continuous feed of waste plastics to oil.” Another candidate worth a shout-out is Plastic2oil, more about them here. And, a number of people praise Cynar, which you can read about here.
The Next Wave?
In 2014, we reported on a new process to convert all biomass into liquid fuel, and the method could make possible mobile processing plants. The researchers at Purdue University filed a patent application on the concept in 2008 and have now demonstrated that it works in laboratory experiments, said Rakesh Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering.
“The demonstration is a step toward commercialization,” he said. “Because the process can produce hydrocarbons in a single tandem step, it clearly has a potential to have a positive impact on the biofuels sector.” The new method, called fast-hydropyrolysis-hydrodeoxygenation, works by adding hydrogen into the biomass-processing reactor and is made possible by development of a new catalyst and innovative reactor design. The method has the shortened moniker of H2Bioil (pronounced H Two Bio Oil). Researchers tested the process with cellulose and poplar wood, showing that it represents a potentially practical new biofuels technology. More on the technology here.
Last April, we advised that innovations at the USDA were bringing researchers one step closer to developing “green” biofuel production systems farmers can use to meet on-farm energy needs, or to produce renewable fuels for commercial markets. The researchers modified the standard pyrolysis process by gradually replacing nitrogen gas in the processing chamber with the gases produced during pyrolysis. The TGRP process was very effective in lowering oxygen levels and acidity, and no additional catalysts were needed. The energy content of the oak bio-oil was 33.3 percent higher and contained about two-thirds of the energy contained in gasoline. The energy content for switchgrass was 42 percent higher, slightly less than three-fourths of the energy content of gasoline. More on the technology here.
Studies and assessments
The king of assessments is “Fast Pyrolysis and Hydrotreating: 2014 State of Technology R&D and Projections to 2017,” from PNNL. They’re making steady progress towards their 2017 goal of $3/ gallon finished fuels.
A more academic and lengthy analysis we liked was published in the Journal of Natural Sciences Research.
Robert “The Godfatha of Pyrolysis” Brown and associates have penned this good 5-minute read at extension.org.