Bioenergy Equipment Essentials

Top lab researchers and proven project developers speak about trends and needed tweaks to bioenergy hardware.
By Luke Geiver | August 22, 2012

For most people, the word cool as it relates to devices conjures up images of a new cardboard-thin computer, or the latest smartphone. For Mike Lilga, a research chemist on the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Chemical and Biological Process Development Group, cool correlates more to the equipment his team custom designs and fabricates when the goods they need to convert biomass can't be, or haven't been, made by vendors in the advanced biofuels, biobased chemicals or other biomass-based industries.

The ability of researchers working in major facilities like Lilga at PNNL, or others in places such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory or the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to produce that cool equipment and one-off technology might benefit individual projects and research. For the private sector, though, trying to understand what the best researchers know about bioenergy equipment and technology, unique hardware that never hits the market doesn’t mean much or allow suppliers and vendors to tweak or upgrade their existing offerings to match the best. Fortunately, Lilga and others are willing to share their perspectives on the technology and equipment in the biomass industry, giving their take on what works, where improvements can be made, and of course, what’s cool.

Lab Coat Conjectures

Lilga’s work focuses on biomass conversion. The team uses multiple reactor systems from the micro- and lab-scale to near-pilot scale for biomass conversion and upgrading hydrocarbon fuel blend stock. In general, his work involves the use of continuous flow systems that are similar to those destined for commercial scale. With the reactors they typically use, he says, efficient biomass conversion is achieved by having reactors capable of both high pressure and high temperatures, features the majority of off-the-shelf equipment don’t have.

For equipment suppliers, Lilga has a few thoughts, or areas he wishes were addressed. First, he would like to see electrical certification of all equipment prior to arrival at the lab. “Electrical certification is important for any equipment going into our research facilities,” he says, “and third-party certification on site can be costly and cause significant schedule delays.” Next, he’d like to see equipment that comes with more baseline research. Equipment providers would help “if they could provide a set of calibration gas/liquid curves to help the researcher anticipate the order and response factor for most expected hydrocarbons and oxygenates,” he says.

And last, Lilga wants more equipment. “It would be nice if there was a laboratory scale compressor for compressing CO (or even other gases) to greater than psig and safely storing a reasonable amount of the gas at pressure inside a hood or walk-in enclosure,” he adds.

Robert Hettich, a staff researcher for the Chemical Sciences Division at ORNL, leads the lab’s efforts on proteome research, which focuses on characterizing the range of protein “machinery” that microbes, in particular bacteria or yeast, use to solubilize cellulosic material. The main piece of equipment he uses is anything in the mass spectrometry class (tools to measure the mass of a particle). For proteomics research, he says, mass spectrometry is the lynchpin technology. High-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) interfaced with tandem-mass spectrometers “has become the workhorse for bioenergy proteomics,” he says.

For that work-horse equipment to provide the answers the team is looking for, Hettich says key features of the technology need to be present. The system needs to provide a clear spatial separation of the protein mixtures the team is analyzing. The equipment needs to be able to do so by particle size, charge or hydrophobicity (tendency to avoid water) he says, “so that they are presented…in a more simplistic fashion.” For that, the team uses an LTQ-Orbitrap-Velos MS (mass spectrometer instrumentation system) for high-mass accuracy and high-resolution mass measurements, all he adds, to help the team see those super bugs used for bioenergy in “unambiguous identifications.”

In the mass spectrometry equipment world, Rettich sees vendors focused on improving speed of analysis and the performance of instrumentation by creating better methods of protein separations prior to mass spectrometry measurements. Reduced cost is another improvement his proteome team would like to see. “At present, high performance mass spectrometry instrumentation is quite expensive.”

As for the “coolest” equipment his team has worked with, Rettich points to an experimental mass spectrometer set-up that lets his team view entire microbial communities, allowing them to measure how microbes relate and even, compete with each other in natural environmental systems.

Completed Project Perspective

Specialized researchers aren’t the only ones willing or able to comment on equipment and technology trends in a semi-nonbiased fashion. Francois Guay, project manager for Bio-Methatec, a Canadian-based biogas systems provider is now an equipment provider pitching his company’s LIPP biogas technology, but that wasn’t always the case. Before Guay and his team formed their Montreal-based firm, they were sifting through all of the available biogas technology around the world in an effort to bring the best, via licensing, to North America. Eventually, his team decided on a German design that has more than 700 installations globally.

Although he would pitch his own brand of biogas technology over others, he does have a few thoughts on why over 700 biogas projects include his system. For Guay, his technology, like others, features automation controls that allow users to run the equipment more efficiently. The bottom of the large digestion tanks also have a drain that allows for the disposal of larger particles that pass through the digester. “We never have to go into the digesters to remove the large particles,” he says. In addition to the drain feature, many have chosen his system because it offers a gas storage tank at the top of the digester tank all in one unit.

Overall, in the biogas industry, he adds, most digestion systems are in little need of improvement, it is the accompanying pieces that need to be better-integrated with the digesters.

The idea of integration is something Marcus Kauffman, biomass resource specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry, can certainly speak to. In collaboration with the Oregon DOE, Kauffman helped perform five biomass-based installations throughout the state, detailing through case studies what each installation revealed, including information about equipment and technology and how to fit and integrate everything from boilers to silos to wood chip facilities into places like Sisters High School, Blue Mountain Hospital and others.

In the biomass boiler industry, Kauffman points out that although U.S.-based boiler providers are more than capable of distributing a reliable, efficient boiler, the European offerings are still superior in quality and technology. From his perspective gained from the installation projects, however, biomass power applications aren’t just about finding the right boiler technology, they are also about catering the ability of the equipment to, in essence, fit inside the box.

The majority of the installations utilized what Kauffman calls the most popular equipment package in the industry today, the boiler-in-the box. Viessman offers such a product, one that allows a user to contain the boiler and other equipment in a standard shipping container-esque box. The strategy is currently popular because public project developers might not always have the space or the money to construct a separate biomass storage facility. With the box setup, Kauffman says, many of the projects simply had to “pour a slab and lay it down.” If one compares the total cost of the box system versus a chip system, he adds, the chips building can account for nearly half of the total project costs.

In addition to equipment offerings that use a smaller footprint, Kauffman believes remote access to biomass-thermal systems is a must. Using remote access, a provider can have a fleet of boilers spread throughout a region, and still maintain and service the units without training individuals for each site. Doing so, he said, will not only make installations more appealing, but it will create a more efficient system.

The actual boilers may also benefit from a precombustion chamber that essentially superheats biomass before it enters the main chamber, a practice he says, that will create a more efficient burn rate.

In the end, although each researcher or industry expert has their own thoughts about specific equipment, technology or systematic approachs that work or can be improved, all note the need for one thing: flexibility. Whether it’s a commercial-scale reactor, farm-based biogas cleanup process, or a district heating pellet storage facility, each expert notes that vendors and providers need to provide equipment that is adaptable, can be easily tweaked to match certain conditions or equipment packages. And, the hardware of tomorrow needs to offer higher pressure ratings while withstanding the higher temperatures needed for many of the bioenergy processes almost ready for roll-out.

Author: Luke Geiver
Features Editor, Biomass Magazine
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