Process, System and Technology Validation

A roadmap to successful biorefining project development
By Roman Wolff | June 20, 2011

Biofuels and biorefining are new industries, and many of the emergent processes, systems and technologies that support these promising industries have no plants in commercial operations. Those wanting to enter the biofuels or biorefining sector are left with the daunting task of identifying and validating these new technologies, the determining factor in the success or failure of the venture. 

Technology identification and validation is, to a certain extent, a subjective process and it depends on the business requirements of a particular project. This process is time consuming and technically demanding and is best left to those with experience in the field.  A technology partner with the technical expertise and practical business sense can bring together, in an effective manner, the technical and business needs of the project or venture. However, even if you hire an expert, you will still need a roadmap to understand the key decision mileposts in the technology identification and validation process.

Identification: Emergent technologies may be found in the trade literature (Biorefining Magazine, Biodiesel Magazine, etc.), web searches (universities, patent office, etc.), trade shows, or by using an experienced technology partner. Business goals must be clearly and quantifiably defined for each project. Compare each technology against the business goals and identify those that make the cut.

Economics: Preliminary economics of the technologies, which are provided by the technology supplier, will be compared to the economic requirements of the project. Insist on having all basis and assumptions (capital cost and scope, feedstock, energy and labor costs, catalyst, waste disposal cost, cost of capital, etc.) clearly defined to ensure an “apples to apples” economic analysis and comparison between technologies. A good technology partner will help put all economic data on the same basis, define which technology provider will be able to meet the economic requirements of the project, and determine how the technologies stack-up against each other.

Proof of concept: This step should answer the questions, “does it work?” Is the science sound? Up until this point, the technology identification and validation process is based primarily on the claims of the technology supplier.  The proof of concept should include as much independent data as possible. This milestone may include a literature search to define if similar science has been tried at universities, peer reviewed articles, pilot data from the technology supplier, and witnessed pilot tests. During proof of concept, a good technology partner with the proper skill-set will confirm the validity of the claims and benefits of the technology with independent data/information. He/she will also compare the proposed process with similar technology in other industries to confirm feasibility. 

Once a technology provider has been chosen, the next step is to make sure that the chosen technology can be implemented at commercial scale. While the most conservative approach would be to use a technology that has already been implemented in the field, most of biofuels or biorefining technologies that promise profitability are new and have no plants in commercial operations. To validate scalability, one may use a semi-commercial pilot unit together with an independent engineering review. A reputable engineering company may be recommended by the technology provider. A technical feasibility analysis can be performed at this stage to define how the technology will work with all other pieces of the plant. 

Deployment: At this stage, the front runner technology has been solidified and one must ensure that the technology can be deployed in the field. Critical to deployment is equipment: most of the equipment should be available “off the shelf,” which is easier to acquire, install, replace and maintain; catalyst: there should be a secure and verifiable source of catalyst supply; and alliances with engineering companies and/or fabrication shops that ensure enough resources to deliver the technology.

A basic engineering review is generally used to complete this milestone. In addition to answering most of the above questions, the basic engineering review provides a more in-depth look at the technology, including equipment sizing, process drawings, updated economics, better defined operational issues and more. This is the last stage of the technology identification and validation process.  

Following this a producer will have identified a technology that meets the business goals, confirmed preliminary project economics, ensured the technology is sound, scalable and can be deployed in the field; hence, the technology has been validated and the project can be kicked off. A good technology partner can manage this process and help reduce risks associated with the identification, validation and implementation of emergent technologies.

Other nontechnical aspects of the technology identification and validation process are funding and acquisition of the chosen technology. These critical business aspects must be addressed concurrently with, and require input from, the technical team, but include another group of specialists: finance, business and legal.

Author: Roman Wolff
President, Enhanced Biofuels
(713) 301-8660