More research, satellites to make bio-oil the new black gold

| May 04, 2011

To start a discussion on why pyrolysis oil could be the new black gold, Dave Goebel, principal executive and chief operating officer of New Generation Biofuels, held above his head a beaker of bio-oil. Although some in the crowd may have been seeing such a liquid for the first time, there were also several industry experts in the pyrolysis oil field on hand for the presentation, including Roman Wolff, president of Enhanced Biofuels, and a member of another leading pyrolysis oil developer, Ensyn Technologies. Enhanced Biofuels has developed a pyrolysis oil reactor system that bolts on to existing facilities and Ensyn has already formed a joint venture with Envergent Technologies and UOP, a Honeywell company to develop and further deploy their Rapid Thermal Process technology that produces bio-oil.

While both companies are helping to expand the demand for bio-oil, there are still research efforts like those of Zhiguo Wang at Saskatchewan’s Research Council. Wang is currently researching roughly 10 technologies that are employing some form of bio-oil production method (three in pyrolysis and six in torrefaction). Wang explained to the crowd the many differences between bio-oil production methods and concluded that both pyrolysis oil methods and torrefaction methods each have their own “attractiveness” depending on the situation.

Mel Moench, president of Moench Inc., a company that has developed a “satellite system” that would allow farmers to form a cooperative-type system to harvest, produce, sell or reuse bio-oil stemming from their own herbaceous crops, spoke about a particular situation that he believes would also help expand bio-oil. “Anything that can be cut, dried and laid in the field is my niche,” he said, also telling the crowd that there is a huge difference between herbaceous biomass-based bio-oil in comparison to everything else. For example, he said, “If you throw a bunch of leaves onto a fire, it kind of smothers the fire, but with the same fire, if you throw a handful of straw in, you better back up.”

To utilize the potential of bio-oil he has developed a satellite system that includes a trailer-mounted bio-oil reactor that can be located at a site for 62 days before moving onto another site for a new round of production time. This “semi-trailer concept,” which has a mounted reactor on the trailer, was likened to smoking a cigar from the middle. “Basically we feed in from one end and we react on the other end, and we draw the hot combustion air from the middle.” This system, he said, has its advantages, although it gives up some efficiencies to produce the product (the feedstock end is not sealed in the process), it does allow for the mass production of the substances. “It’s mobile and it’s simple.” The system would include a main site with the flatbed trailer and reactor module and at least four other satellite sites that would collect the material for the production module, or also house a reactor module to produce more bio-oil.

Two people can operate the trailers, with a bail of feedstock ranging from corn stover to straw residue going into the reactor every five to seven minutes. The cost for a plant (the trailer with the reactor module) and the equipment necessary for four separate satellite locations would cost roughly $2.6 million, but, he added, “the plant could be paid back in two to four years.”

Moench said that some of his data is not complete on the satellite system yet, but he was just trying to paint a picture of how this could happen. In addition to information provided by Ray Jones, senior project specialist for Lurgi Inc., on all of the future or potential ways to produce or utilize pyrolysis oil, Moench closed his remarks with a statement that Enhanced Biofuels or Ensyn Technologies likely wouldn’t disagree with: beyond creating and expanding the pyrolysis market, this work, in part, can “start putting people back to work.”