Konza Renewable Fuels commercializing wood torrefaction in Kansas

By Katie Fletcher | October 06, 2015

A group of companies in the Topeka and Meriden, Kansas, area created Konza Renewable Fuels to focus on commercializing wood torrefaction technology five years ago and are now in the process of fabricating the equipment for their first sale.

Thompson Dryers and Ernest Spencer Companies joined forces to create Konza Renewable Fuels LLC in early 2010, and later that year fired up a pilot-scale torrefaction unit to produced torrefied product.

Family-owned Thompson Dryers got its start providing alfalfa dehydrating systems. In the mid-to-late 70’s the company got involved in biomass drying technology. Following in the next decade, the company closed the last of its fabrication facilities for its alfalfa business and began focusing on dryers as a design and service company. “In 2009, we started looking into torrefaction and trying to determine whether or not we wanted to get involved in that industry,” said Ted Thompson, CEO of Thompson Dryers and administrator with Konza Renewable Fuels. “We came up with a couple of different ideas and designs that we wanted to do, and then we went about finding some partners to work with on it.”

The company’s demonstration unit is currently located in Healy, Kansas, and operated occasionally as a research device. According to Thompson, the unit is operated to show potential customers what the system is capable of. Torrefied product is created to make samples for those who are interested, and people can also bring in a particular sample of feedstock they would like torrefied. The unit is capable of producing 1 ton of torrefied product per hour, but is generally used to create a few hundred pounds a few times per year. The system has usually used lodgepole pine out of Colorado as its feedstock, but has used a variety of other sources, including Syphers, Hemlock, Spruce, Firs, recycled wood, construction and demolition waste and crop residuals.

“We want to build torrefaction systems and sell them to people who want to operate plants that would produce a torrefied biomass to sell,” Thompson said.

Generally, this would be a coal-fired power plant, but Thompson said there are many other uses. He adds that one of the main markets for the torrefaction technology is people who already have existing facilities and are dealing with biomass but want to expand their facilities to offer something else. “There are existing white wood pellet plants out there interested in adding a torrefaction line or even potentially switching over to just producing a torrefied product,” Thompson said. “At this stage, I think the largest marketplace for us is the people who are just very interested in starting a Greenfield plant on their own. We’ve had many people from power plants out to see the unit and to see the product, but they haven’t been interested in purchasing the technology to make the torrefied wood themselves. They are interested in purchasing the product that comes out.”

Thompson emphasizes it’s an emerging market. “It’s an issue where not only the technology to produce a torrefied fuel has to be proven, but the fuel itself has to be proven, and that hasn’t really happened yet.”

Thompson believes that government regulations to produce and use greener, cleaner technologies will drive the use of renewable fuels and energy. “I think we are getting to the point economically and in the marketplace with regulations and other things that you are going to start seeing torrefied plants built,” Thompson said. “I think you’ll see this product coming out really in the next two to three years, and then, I think, by 2020, it’s going to start to be more of a standard product that is out in the marketplace and used as a substitute for coal, but it’s still in the very early stages of its development.”

The goal of Konza is to provide utility companies with an alternative to either having to close because they cannot meet emission or renewable energy standards or to expensive upgrades their facility must incorporate to meet those standards. The company envisions that a torrefied fuel will likely mean that a third party will put up the capital expense to build the plant and supply the fuel and the utility will buy that fuel. In this scenario, technically, the utility will only have to pay for the difference in cost between torrefied product and coal.  According to Thompson, there should be some additional operational savings to the utility because of the cleanup expenses associated with coal use due to sulfur and heavy metals like mercury. “This would be a very small long-term investment as opposed to an often extremely large short-term investment to upgrade their facilities,” Thompson said.

Thompson recognizes that at least at the plant stage, it’s going to cost more per ton, more per gigajoule or more per Btu than coal, but it’s a cleaner burning fuel and a premium product.

“A lot of legislative regulations are coming into effect and a lot of these companies will really, seriously have to start addressing renewable energy and the emissions standards that appear to be coming online,” Thompson said. “We wanted to get ready for that, and we’ve done that by building a unit, testing it, designing larger units and we’ve been fortunate enough to sell one unit.”

Konza currently has a project with Advanced Fuel Solutions just outside of Porto, Portugal, which is expecting operation later next year. Thompson said the equipment is starting to be fabricated in the Ernest-Spencer fabrication shop in Meriden, Kansas. Konza is expecting to start shipments of parts towards the end of the year. “It’s exciting to have this particular system ordered and being built, and we’re excited to get it up and running,” Thompson said.

The system will be capable of producing up to 100,000 metric tons per year, assuming about 8,400 hours of operation.

Moving forward, Konza believes torrefaction technology has an attractive future. “We feel that there is definitely room in the marketplace and that it can be a very valuable commodity because it can be handled directly like coal and it can be a savings for a utility company that doesn’t want to invest in the infrastructure that would be required to handle white wood,” Thompson said.

He adds that there are a number of companies in North America working on developing torrefaction technology. “I think the technology is available and is ready, because some of these companies have technology that is ready to be used like ourselves.”