Producing the Next Generation of Green Hydrocarbons

Commercially producing bio-oil from biomass is at the core of Ensyn's expertise. The company proves that multiple sources can be used when converting biomass into bio-oil for the production of biomass-based chemicals, bioenergy and renewable transportation fuels.
By Heidi Vincent
Many companies are searching for a renewable source of energy that will alleviate our dependence on fossil fuels. Ideally, this renewable source would ensure compatibility with existing oil refineries and delivery infrastructure, and would be derived from non-food biomass, such as forest residuals and post consumer materials. All of these features constitute not only a renewable source of energy, but a new generation of biofuels-one that provides a carbon dioxide-neutral, renewable gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Ensyn

Technologies Inc., a Canadian company that operates commercial fast pyrolysis plants for the production of bio-oil from wood biomass, believes it has discovered this source.

While Ensyn is best known as a producer of chemicals derived from wood feedstocks, it has also been producing energy from bio-oil for nearly 20 years. With the recent peak in crude oil prices, Ensyn's bioenergy products used for industrial heat and electrical power generation-all of which are based on its Rapid Thermal Processing system-are proving successful within the biofuels marketplace.

Recently, Ensyn teamed up with UOP LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc. and major global technology company based in Des Plaines, Ill., to facilitate the upgrading of liquid bio-oil to an alternative transportation fuel. "This is [our] holy grail," says Robert Graham, founder and chairman of Ensyn Technologies. "Transportation fuels have the highest economic value of all fuels and are what the world has an insatiable appetite for. [The world also] has an appetite for electricity that can be produced by using bio-oil in turbines, but everybody thinks first about transportation fuels. [Bio-oil] is the future. This is one of the most exciting areas we are working in."

Bio-oil may also provide the renewable solution for producing biofuels that major oil companies are looking for, as it can be seamlessly applied to a company's existing infrastructure and operational scale. "In searching for a replacement fuel to meet our energy and transportation needs, we have to be practical in the solutions we seek," Graham says. "Petroleum companies cannot quickly move away from what they are doing as they have billions of dollars invested in sophisticated infrastructure and systems for controlling the flow of energy around the world, including refineries, pipelines and service stations that have taken nearly 100 years to build."

Developing a Bio-Oil System
During the production of bio-oil, solid biomass wood is blasted into a tornado of hot sand at the bottom of a conversion unit. In less than two seconds the wood is vaporized. It is then condensed and recovered as a liquid bio-oil.

Seventy-five percent of the solid wood biomass injected into the RTP system is transformed into high yields of espresso-like bio-oil. The liquid wood is not a tar. It is a pourable fluid, which Ensyn treats as its own version of crude oil, and is used as a resource to make other products, such as high value biochemicals, in the same way petroleum crude is used in a variety of applications.

The remaining 25 percent of the biomass is converted into non-condensable gas and charcoal. These byproducts are fed back into a reheater in order to keep the tornado of sand at the required processing temperature. More energy is in the gas and char than required to drive this process, so the reheater has a surplus of energy. Ensyn uses this surplus to dry the wet biomass that arrives at the facility and to supply other industrial heat requirements.

Since 1989, Ensyn's RTP plants have been making liquid bio-oil from solid wood biomass through a patented fast pyrolysis thermal process. Liquid bio-oil can replace heating fuel, natural gas and coal in a vast array of boiler applications. The company produces renewable energy in the form of a liquid fuel as opposed to a gas or solid fuel, which enables what is known as "decoupling." With decoupling, production can be separated by time and space from the actual use of the product.

In systems that do not produce a liquid fuel, following the gasification and combustion stages, the energy produced must be used immediately and cannot be stored, which forces the energy and fuel generator to be coupled with the energy user. This can pose a problem when the energy system is down, as it means the end user is also off-line. Ensyn's liquid fuel product avoids this by decoupling the interdependence of the production and end-use, making the energy storable, shippable and transportable.

Ensyn's most recent breakthrough is its engineering relationship with UOP, a company that supplies petroleum technology to all of the major refineries in the world, including much of the new refining capacity in China and India. This joint venture partnership is revolutionizing all the markets in which Ensyn and its partners are working. By applying an enabling petroleum technology to upgrade bio-oil, it has made alternative green hydrocarbons possible.

"The world wants fungible transportation fuels," Graham says. "Once we make gasoline, diesel or fuel oil via Ensyn's RTP system, it no longer matters whether the source is from oil in the ground or from a tree in the forest. That is the essence of what the world wants to achieve… a completely replaceable, fungible liquid biofuel."

Entering the Market
Rather than become a large company, Ensyn establishes strategic relationships and joint ventures and then spins them off as separate businesses. RTP remains at the core of each business as the fundamental enabling technology. This business model works for Ensyn, which has a history of partnerships with major providers, such as specialty chemical company Red Arrow Products Co. Inc. and petroleum partner Ivanhoe Energy Inc. In 2005, Ensyn sold the rights to its commercialized version of the heavy oil upgrading process to Ivanhoe for an enterprise value of $100 million.

"With current energy prices, our proven track record, commercially operating plants and in-house expertise, companies are coming to our door every day," Graham says. "Our time has come. We are being approached by potential partners from energy and forestry companies. People want liquid fuels and they are asking us to solve their residual biomass problems."

Ensyn's strategic partners have access to large amounts of feedstocks and biomass residuals. In effect, these biomass assets are equal to their "oil-in-the-ground" counterparts.

Ensyn works with them to access these assets and to provide an enabling RTP technology so that the partner can distribute renewable energy. Thus, each strategic partnership is commercializing Ensyn's RTP technology by pulling bio-oil products into their respective marketplaces.

The company has active strategic relationships in six core sectors: thermal and electrical generation, construction and demolition, forestry, biochemicals, renewable transportation fuels and petroleum upgrading. The construction and demolition sector has access to large amounts of waste wood from the demolition of buildings. Major utilities and energy-from-waste companies are working to collect these post-consumer products that can be used as feedstocks for energy production. Ensyn recently signed a partnership agreement with a major global electrical utility company that has access to vast amounts of urban wood waste. This partnership will provide Ensyn with the opportunity to produce green electricity and fuel oil through RTP plants in major municipal centres.

Ensyn is also targeting the forest industry that has biomass residuals from which they need to achieve the highest value. These residuals include sawdust, hog fuel and other lower value biomass that cannot be used for timber. Ensyn is working with a forest product company to use their forest residuals for the production of electricity, fuel oil, chemicals and energy.

"If we had been asked just over a year ago, what is the biggest scale we would like to comfortably achieve in our next commercial RTP plant, we would have said 250 tonnes of dried feedstock per day," Graham says. "Now, with our strategic engineering relationship, we can confidentially talk about building 1,000 to 2,000 dried tonnes per day plants as we move into producing bio-oil as a feedstock to make next-generation biofuels, such as green hydrocarbons."

Heidi Vincent is a communications consultant with GreenLane Communications. She can be reached at