This press release made the local papers here in Malaysia today. This is a 'flash pyrolysis' technology... probably similar to Dynamotive in Canada (and a number of other technology providers in various stages of commercial development). The business model for flash pyrolysis is very much focused on biomass to energy - principally bio-oils and liquid fuels. Residual carbon from the process is being identified as a source of biochar. Dynamotive have been supporting biochar soil trials by BlueLeaf over the last few years with exciting results. A search on the Energent website for biochar pulls no results so it does not look like they have the supply of biochar in their immediate plans.
As oil prices rise, so will the intrinsic value of waste biomass, such as EFB (the likely target of Energent for biomass feed-stock). Supply currently exceeds demand so EFB probably has a disposal cost rather than an income - particularly for independent palm oil mills (with no access to plantation disposal). This is set to change in the future and I am predicting competition between slow and fast pyrolysis technologies for the attention of the big plantation companies and their biomass wastes. The two technologies vary in a number of ways:
- Flash pyrolysis is focused on liquid biofuels but could also provide CHP integration into the palm oil mill. Some high temperature biochar may be available depending on the technology but this will be a minor component.
- The technology is often more complex and expensive than slow pyrolysis so will demand larger project scales with a more centralized model (maybe a bold assumption!). This may work well for POM integration but not so well for the massive plantation replanting program that is required in the industry (and currently being deferred by high palm oil prices!).
- The biomass and carbon is removed from the agricultural system. Additional inputs will be required to replace these losses. This will carry an additional cost to the plantation or to soil / crop productivity, if not replaced.
- Slow pyrolysis technologies can also produce bio-oils and energy gases for CHP and power production but must sacrifice some on the potential energy value when locking it up as recalcitrant carbon. This 'charcoal', when applied to the soil as biochar, has multiple benefits... principally related to soil enhancement, environmental management and carbon sequestration.
- Slow pyrolysis will generally be smaller, simpler, cheaper and may be much more variable in scale and efficiency. It may offer a more 'distributed energy' solution that will lower biomass handling costs. It can offer mobile solutions to capture biomass that may otherwise be lost as co2 to hungry bacteria (replanting of palm requires chipping of old palms to control beetle infestation... a great opportunity for mobile pyrolysis).
- Slow pyrolysis biochar has different properties than flash/fast. It remains to be seen which product has greater benefits under specific agriculture conditions. And this may depend on soil type / condition, agriculture and environmental considerations.
- Slow pyrolysis may have greater control over process conditions for the manufacture of designer biochars. Mainly because biochar is likely to be the focused product.
I am currently aware of four separate groups planning biochar soil trials and targeting the palm oil industry. Other project proposals are looking for funding.