FT demonstration plant opens in Austria

By Luke Geiver
Posted August 19, 2010, at 10:55 a.m. CST

A biomass-to-liquids demonstration plant featuring a Fischer Tropsch (FT) microchannel reactor is now operating in Gussing, Austria. Compared to conventional units, the reactor is estimated to be four to eight times more productive. A joint-venture between the U.K.-based Oxford Catalysts Group and the Portuguese company SGC Energia, along with the help of U.S.-based Velocys Inc., the demonstration facility is using wood chips in "a range of operating conditions," according to Jeff McDaniel, business development director at Velocys. Those conditions include pressure, temperature and conversion levels "in order to fully establish and confirm operational boundaries and output. We will also test how the reactor performs over an extended time period to prove the catalyst stability," McDaniel said.

The plant is currently producing 0.75 kilograms of FT liquids per liter of catalyst per hour. Made up of over 900 microchannels, the Gussing reactor has channel diameters in the millimeter range as opposed to conventional reactors using channels in the centimeter range. The smaller diameter channels dispel heat more quickly, allowing for the use of more active catalysts, boosting the conversion rates in the process. The combination of the FT catalyst developed by Oxford Catalysts and the reactor, developed by Velocys, has allowed the plant to show "conversion efficiencies in the range of 70 percent per pass," according to a statement by Oxford Catalysts, as opposed to typical conversion rates of "50 percent or less per pass."

In 2008, Velocys ran a 2 gallon-per-day microchannel demonstration unit for more than 4000 hours, and the results showed more than 1500 kilograms per cubic meter per hour (kg/m3/h), compared to 100 kg/m3/h for fixed bed reactors and 200 kg/m3/h for slurry-bed reactors. "Successful testing of our FT demonstration is an important step closer to validation of our technology," Roy Lipski, CEO of Oxford Catalysts Group said.

Along with the conversion efficiencies already seen at the plant, McDaniel said the benefits of their FT system allows for "numbering up." Instead of time consuming, costly structure changes within the plant, the Velocys reactor allows a facility to simply add another module when scaling up. The catalyst used in the process, an Organic Matrix Combustion, or OMX catalyst as Oxford Catalysts calls it, is characterized by crystallites that have a terraced surface to enhance activity. The OMX combines a metal salt with an organic compound, creating a process that stabilizes the catalyst for use in the reactor.

For the people of the southern Austria town, research and development in the renewable energy sector however, is nothing new. Since 2001 the town has remained energy self-sufficient through operation of a working biomass gasification plant and what McDaniel calls, "enthusiasm of the local technology community." Along with the established mood for energy efficiency in the Austrian community, McDaniel said the availability of woodchips for fuel, and the number of facilities made selecting the site beneficial for the biofuels project. Although the joint-venture group will continue testing the FT process, and they do have a site selected for another facility, they are not prepared to announce where or when.